Politics and Society

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Snow – Part two, by Orhan Pamuk

   Behind all the noise about Orhan Pamuk and his 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature, there is the disturbing and intrusive squabble among the ideologues and jurists in Turkey about Pamuk’s alleged crime (during a broadcast interview) of defaming the Turkish state and its military authority – in relation to the alleged massacre of 1 million Armenians and 30, 000 Kurds – and his insult to ‘turkishness.’ The timing of the awarding of the prize reeks of international pressure by  EU intellectuals and high-handed political meddling by the Nobel Prize committee. (This was seconded by an international coterie of writers who take their oath of cultural relativism as seriously as Stalin took his oath to improve the life of the soviet citizens under his care.) What’s worse, in my book, is that the evidence against him – as provided by Snow – more than establishes his actual guilt! It damns him as an unrepentant “h8er” of all things Turkish. Pamuk does not respect his native land or its people; indeed, a good case can be made that he finds them almost wholly ludicrous, childlike – not as to their innocence – but as to their emotional and intellectual development – and profoundly ill-equipped to handle the exigencies of life and politics on their own ground, let alone on the world stage. Ironic, since, to these fictive, strange pamukian turks, all of life, politics and religion seems to be one big theatrical performance, played out for the benefit of anyone who will watch or listen!
   Snow is an exaggeratedly sentimental tale of unlikely political and romantic intrigue, detailing – after a PoMo fashion – the three-days-like-a-lifetime visit of an exiled poet to a northern border town in his native Turkey. To call it a romance, or a political thriller would be to overstate the case each way. One would have to become involved or invested in the characters at some level for this description to bear the weight. Rather, I think. it is farce, played out in a straight-faced, though intentionally sloppy, narrative mode (hence the description: PoMo). Its narrator is Pamuk, himself, or so he gives us to believe, though how seriously this is to be taken is itself the real challenge of the book. And the protagonist is   

Ka - His actual given name is Kerim Alakusoglu, and he is a poet who has been granted political asylum in Germany for the past 12 years when the story of his return to Turkey, and Kars, begins. He returns to Turkey, ostensibly, to attend his mother’s funeral, though we hardly here any mention of this, aside from hearing second-hand of the claim he apparently made to a friend  - the author of this memoir, Orhan Pamuk, – about his mother being always on his mind throughout the period of his stay in the snowbound  border city. While in Istanbul, he is assigned to write an article (or articles) for the western leaning press about the tumultuous political election campaigns in Kars, a poor, Anatolian border town in northern Turkey, and about a rash of suicides by young women who have shown resistance to the state sponsored ban on the wearing of head-scarves. But it becomes clear early enough that this pretext is just that: a narrative device to explain Ka’s presence in the socio-politico-religious context Pamuk wants to address.
   His mission is complicated – we should say undermined or completely subverted – by his own, improbably instantaneous and passionate love interest in an old flame, Ipek, who is recently divorced from her editor husband and thus again ‘available’ to the 42 year old celebrity-writer. Yes, Ka is treated by the local citizens and officials as a celebrity; as ‘one of our own who has made a splash in the West,’ and he is equally distrusted as ‘one of ours who has been hopelessly corrupted by the hegemonic influence of atheistic individualism endemic in the evil West. Tough row to hoe, no doubt! This ambivalence will actually become a thematic staple of the book.
  As a character in fiction, Ka is a remarkable one. He is depicted by his avowed friend and admirer - the novelist Pamuk, himself, or an alter ego of some postmodern sort - as the archetypical ingénue. He is naïve, impulsive, hysterical in his passions, apparently newborn every moment to his own intellectual and emotional life, and embarrassingly aimless and opportunistic by turns in his pursuit of his purpose –winning the love of Ipek the magnificent beauty of Kars. By the time we reach midpoint in the novel, the pretext of writing articles about either the elections or the head-scarf (suicide) girls, is entirely abandoned, not decisively but off handedly. Apparently, he simply forgets that that is what he is there to do! But in this, he is not remarkable; for all of the characters are equally malleable, though they rarely seem to acknowledge this as a limit on their avowed absolutisms.

   Kars is the name of a small mercantile city, derived from Karsu, meaning ‘frozen river’ referring to the river that runs through its center. “Kar” means ‘snow’ in Turkish. Ka is the name of the protagonist, that is used only once by the author, and never by the character or the people around him, either in life or in death. He meets his mysterious death by gunfire in the Kaiserstrasse immigrant district in Frankfurt, Germany under a big neon store sign of the letter –wait for it – K. (Any Kafka fans want to take a run at this incredible shrinking word strategy?) There is doubtless some symbolic function involved in this verbal winnowing, but I am too long out of high school to say what it is. It seems like a joke that younger ones might tell to great effect among themselves, but which we old dogs just don’t “get.” I’ll learn to live without the magic.
   Oh, and guess what Ka wanted to call his newly completed work of poems based on his revelatory experiences in Kars! That’s right; ‘Snow.’

   Only one of the major drawbacks to Snow, is the unrelentingly ad hoc structure of the novel. On the narrative level the story unfolds in the most unlikely ways with each new scene presenting one more opportunity for characters to take up absurdly absolutist positions on the great East meets West dialogue, and pursue them to unlikely and even ridiculous conclusions. They are absurd positions precisely because they are adopted always in reaction to a perceived expectation or challenge from without –never as a coherent response to experience as such. All ideas, then, are intrinsically reactionary.
    On the level of character development and scenic elaboration, the descriptions are equally ad hoc (and almost always post hoc, as well) and contrived to rationalize what has already happened. (In one exceedingly egregious oversight he mentions “these stables” only to then explain a whole paragraph later that the buildings he is referring to had once been, but are no longer, ottoman stables!) In this world, people wear their allegiances like coats (Ka’s charcoal grey coat – read: neutral in color and symbolism; it is a recurrent motif – which suit present purposes (read ulterior motives) and are as readily discarded after their usefulness has been exploited. This too is thematic; apparently for Pamuk, character and conviction are mere modalities of rationalization. No one actually believes in anything at all, least of all what they say or do, though they do make great efforts to meet the expectations of some group or other whose similarly whimsical opinion matters at the time. When Ipek is making the most dramatic move of her life as we know it, she is concerned about the barely extant clerk will think of her going upstairs! Note however, that this ever-ready moral concern does not extend to matters of adultery or treason!

   Snow has been criticized as boring again and again. I think the reason it is seen as boring is because the characters and plot are intrinsically unpredictable and inherently non-dramatic. One never knows what is going to come next, so every scene is a cautionary tale about thwarted expectations. The many characters and scenes lack a central motive force, a determinative character or potential: instead they are all equally variable and presumptuously willy-nilly. One can only plod along and wonder what new improbability awaits. And they abound in the novel; each with less reason than the one before, though always after the fact, some plausible (and plausibly deniable) excuse is given. This strategy grates on the nerves. It is thematic, expressing as it does Pamuk’s central conviction, that human attempts at ordering our lives by conviction or reason are doomed to disillusionment, but it is not dramatic –nor, I think, is it true or helpful to story telling. If all efforts are in vain, why write the novel? Why indulge the pretense? Like so many other PoMo devices, like the ridiculous and irrational mismanagement of time (and the improper and impossible deployment of time indices) and the trendy subversion of readers’ expectations with irrelevant details and impromptu shifts in perspective, the style eventually becomes pedantic and dull. But this all begs a question: If all efforts at order are vain, whence the novel? The fact refutes itself! So stop the nonsense already. Try showing your book and your characters some of the same respect you expect from Turkey’s courts for your own hallowed rights to be an idiot in public. Try treating your readers to a little consideration. We need more than another third world whiner who wants to be a first world intellectual.
   Ultimately, it up to readers to say “No” to writers like Pamuk and to the Nobel Prize committee. Instead of supporting him, we should be telling him: “Go! Get a job that doesn’t include being stupid and maybe we’ll talk.”

   It is telling that when the book ends on its last sad note – ‘As the train pulled out and the people receded from view into the blur of the falling snow, I began to cry’ – we are completely at a loss as to what Pamuk is crying about. He came to Kars, like his poetic-twin to research a book on his friend’s life and work. He got his answers. Is this cause for tears? Why? or why not? Or was it that he, like his idiot friend before him, fell instantaneously and madly in love with the local fox, Ipek? In the end, who cares? If the writer doesn’t care enough to tell us, why should we care to know –or to believe? Like so much else in the text, this sentimental denouement seems an ad hoc add on. It is another PoMo subversion of expectations and an instance of inexplicable irrelevance. It seems like one more literary convention tossed into the mix without any sense or concern for its proper place, preparation, utility or purpose.

   To say that the text represents life as Pamuk understands it is equivalent to saying that literature is a performance art, not essentially literary at all – i.e. not embodied in any possible experience of the imagination which is sparked by the skillful use of words -, but rather artificially (and pretentiously) concocted of pages and pretenses and conventions, thrown together after the fact to disguise our putatively naked libidos. If this is what PoMo means, I think I’ll pass.

P.S.:   In a shameless act of self-promotion and self-defense, Pamuk puts into the mouth of one of the novel’s more endearing characters the wish that we not believe what the writer says about him, or about any of the characters, for no one can know another at such a distance. Ha! The disclaimer is built right into the summary: Don’t think you can dismiss this junk as junk, since it (meaning 'Literature') is by nature too feeble to carry the assigned weight and I know it, so let’s give me prizes for trying.
   Sorry Orhan: You should have trued harder.