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Literature / Snow

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No one here likes Ka these days.

Orhan Pamuk's Snow tells the story of Ka, a lonely poet returning to his Turkish homeland after long years of exile...

Well, sort of. Actually, it's really more about Turkey's continuing identity crisis, and the endless push-pull between secularism and Islam, modernity and romanticism, rich and poor, nationalism and leftism...

But that doesn't really do it justice. Art's the important thing, how it inspires and is inspired. The novel references art from many different mediums, showing how it can transform minds...

Put simply, Snow is all of this and more. Ka finds himself going to the remote eastern city of Kars, its lonely houses in the path of a snowstorm. His purpose? To reconnect with the beautiful İpek, a woman he'd loved ardently but lost to a fellow leftist, named Muhtar, during his student days. Ka's more or less abandoned politics, preferring his own artistic dreamscape to the world's reality. He finds out that İpek's separated from Muhtar (who's become an Islamist), which at first seems a cause for much rejoicing.


Yet it gets more complicated. Kars is a poor town facing a crisis in which religious teenage girls have been committing suicide. Each of the suicides was known for wearing a headscarf, in accordance with Muslim tradition. Turkey's strict secularism forbade female students from donning headscarves in class; since many refused to take them off, they were denied an education. Given that Kars is a poor city with little apparent future, this is a tremendous sacrifice. Of course, Islam strictly prohibits suicide, so no one is quite sure why these girls would kill themselves. Complicating matters even further is that İpek's younger sister, Kadife, is considered the leader of the Kars headscarf girls. Though she never tried to kill herself, she's quickly attracting attention and controversy.

Into this mix comes Sunay Zaim, a theater troupe manager and actor with a rather... intense nationalistic and secularistic streak. He's trying to attack the Islamists in town by doing a florid performance of My Fatherland or My Scarf, a Turkish play that condemns religiosity. Opposing him is an Islamist named Blue, a wanted terrorist and killer, and the students at a local religious bigh school. Hovering over everything is the army and the ubiquitous secret police known as MİT.


Ka wants only to reconnect with İpek and end his writer's block. But this starts looking less and less likely as violence starts to shake Kars, and a snowstorm cuts it off from the rest of the world.

Snow earned its writer a well-deserved Nobel Prize in Literature. It offers a fascinating look at the contradictions and concerns of modern Turkey. Though the author's sympathies are more with the Westernized, secular Turks, he shows that the Islamists have a legitimate grievances, and that the Turkish government has more than its share of dark secrets (Pamuk himself is rather unpopular in Turkey due to his criticisms of the governments treatments of the Kurdish ethnic minority; he currently resides in the United States).

The novel provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Arranged Marriage: Some of the suicide girls were avoiding or suffering from these.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: The list of crimes Necim is accused of includes conspiring with the notorious terrorist Blue, plotting to murder someone, and making a rude gesture at a police car.
  • Beneath Notice: Goalkeeper Vural of all people was working for MİT, not that it mattered much.
  • Catch the Conscience: Sunay Zaim's performance of My Fatherland or My Scarf seems to be this. It is, but is more importantly an excuse to launch a strange, localized secular coups in order to stop the encroach of Islamism, and also to secure Zaim's place in the pantheon of Turkish dramatic artists. A later example is his heavily altered version of Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy.
  • Character Narrator: At first, Snow seems like it's told from a standard third-person perspective. As it goes on, however, it becomes apparent that the narrator is Ka's friend, investigating his death! Eventually, it turns out that the narrator is none other than Orham Pamuk himself!
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Ka sometimes comes across as this, due to his deep introversion and poetic nature.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: This is always on the table as a form of punishment or interrogation. Nobody seems to consider it remarkable, much like the characters in Pamuk's My Name Is Red.
  • Conditioned to Accept Horror: The reader is reminded at all turns that police brutality and even military coups are nothing new to the characters.
  • Democracy Is Flawed: Examines some of the problems in Turkish democracy, such as the headscarf issue. How can it be seen as democratic to forbid people from religiously expressing themselves? This fundamental contradiction is a big part of the novel (it's worth noting that the Turkish headscarf ban has been lifted after the Islamist AK Party came to power). There is also the persecution of the Kurds, and the denial of the Armenian Genocide.
  • Domestic Abuse: Common in Kars. Ka is struck by how many of the suicide girls were subject to beatings.
  • Fictional Document: Snow is the name of Ka's poetry collection that he writes while in Kars. This turns out to be why the narrator (a fictionalized Pamuk) names the novel Snow.
  • Goal in Life: Necip's goal is to be the world's first Islamist science-fiction writer. After he dies, his friend Fazil writes and publishes the manuscript, crediting Necip.
  • Grey-and-Grey Morality: Most of the accusations the various factions hurl at each other are true, or at least apply to the particular representative of that faction that they wer hurled at.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Necip and Fazil.
  • Hypocrite: Everyone, although very special mention should go to Blue, the radical Islamist terrorist who does not seem to think that Islamic morality applies to him as long as he kills enough people in its name.
  • I Take Offense to That Last One!: When the Border City Gazette prints an article accusing Ka of being a spy and inciting revolution, he is most offended that it refers to him as a "so-called poet".
  • Love Makes You Crazy: Ka, to some extent.
  • Majored in Western Hypocrisy: Many of the characters comment on the awkward position of Westernized Turks. They embrace liberalism, and thus criticize the government (which sees itself—with at least some justification—as the protector of liberal government). The Islamists hate them for being irreligious. In general, there's a feeling that the Westernized Turks are sycophants, caring only about how Europeans think of them, without realizing that the Europeans generally hold Turks in contempt. The novel says there is some truth to this, without saying that the Westernized Turks are completely wrong.
  • Not-So-Fake Prop Weapon: Sunay actually plans to be killed this way for the sake of art and politics.
  • Patriotic Fervor: Sunay Zaim engages in this.
  • Police Brutality: Is seen as completely normal.
  • Police State: Turkey has shades of this in the novel, and perhaps in reality as well.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Pamuk was inspired by the tragic real-life suicides of religious girls in the town of Batman, also in eastern Turkey (and mentioned a few times in the novel).
  • Porn Stash: Ka had one in his house in Frankfurt.
  • Red Scare: The novel references the persecution of communists in the past, and makes it an integral part of Ka's backstory. He and most of his friends were leftists back in the '70s and '80s, and Ka's political affiliations forced him to flee to Germany. By the time of the novel, most of the surviving communists are embittered old men, or (like Ka) have abandoned their beliefs. Several, like Muhtar, joined the Islamists (the Islamists are described as appealing since it gives them an excuse to continue hating the Turkish state). Quite a few are dead.
  • Regime Change: A somewhat farcical (though still brutal) example is seen in the localized coup.
  • Reincarnation Romance: Possibly the case, if Fazil is right about Necip's soul migrating to his body after Necip's death. Fazil ends up marrying Kadife by the end of the novel.
  • Secret Police: The MİT, which is the RL Turkish intelligence agency.
  • Soap Within a Show: Many of Kars' residents enjoy Marianna, a Mexican telenovela. The characters' comments on Marianna serve to demonstrate some of their views of gender relations. In RL, Latin American soaps are popular in parts of the Middle East.
  • Stylistic Suck: The synopsis of Necim's science fiction novel is as cringeworthy as one would expect the moralistic fantasy of an idealistic teenaged rebel to be.
  • The Fundamentalist: Many of the characters see the Islamists as these. To some extent, the Islamists consider themselves to fit the bill. The reality is, however, more complicated, and they often have a variety of messy and contradictory personal motivations for their beliefs.
  • The Glorious War of Sisterly Rivalry: This is probably too reductive a term for it, but İpek and Kadife's relationship shows shades of this. Both were romantically involved with the Islamist Blue.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: A Turkish special forces operative named Z Demirkol delivers a pretty stinging one to Ka.
    • "...but intellectuals like you, you never have the faintest idea, and that makes me sick. You say you want democracy, and then you enter into alliances with Islamic fundamentalists. You say you want human rights, and then you make deals with terrorist murderers. You say Europe is the answer, but then you go around buttering up Islamists who hate everything Europe stands for. You say feminism, and then you help these men wrap their women's heads. You don't follow your own conscience; you just guess what a European would do in the same situation and act accordingly. But you can't even be a proper European... As for people like you, you love to trash the army even while you depend on it to keep the Islamists from cutting you up into little pieces. But you know all this already. That's why I'm not going to torture you."
    • That said, the intellectuals have legitimate beefs about Turkey's problems. It's important to know that just about every character and faction contradicts itself in at least a few ways.
  • Unrequited Love Lasts Forever: Ka for İpek, and Necip for Kadife.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: A big theme of the novel. Both the Islamists and the government see each other as terrorist, and both have some justification for this stance.

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