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The poetry of defiance

Snow A Novel Orhan Pamuk Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely Alfred A. Knopf: 434 pp., $26

August 15, 2004|Michael McGaha | Michael McGaha is the Yale B. and Lucille D. Griffith professor of modern languages at Pomona College.

In February 1992, depressed middle-aged poet Kerim Alakushowlu, who prefers to be known as Ka, from his initials, has come back to Turkey for his mother's funeral after 12 years in Germany as a political exile. Learning that an old college classmate, the beautiful Ipek, has separated from her husband and is living in the poverty-stricken northeastern border town of Kars, Ka decides to go there to woo her. An old friend who works for the Republican newspaper hires Ka to report on an epidemic of suicides among girls being pressured to stop wearing the Islamic head scarf and on the upcoming municipal elections, which the political Islamists are expected to win.

Thus begins Orhan Pamuk's "Snow," his seventh novel, and the fifth to be published in English translation. The snow that falls steadily throughout the book has a magical effect on Kars, concealing the evidence of poverty and decay, highlighting the beauty of the old Russian and Armenian buildings, making everyone feel closer together and giving Ka a powerful sense of the presence -- and the silence -- of God. During the next three days, Ka has a staggering series of life-changing experiences: a rapturous sexual relationship with Ipek and encounters with several other remarkable characters, including a charismatic Sufi sheik, a dashing Islamic terrorist and the first Islamist science fiction writer.

After suffering from writer's block for several years, he suddenly finds himself repeatedly being swept away by an irresistible rush of inspiration, leading him to write 19 poems grouped together under the title "Snow," whose hidden symmetries he believes somehow encode the mystery of his life's meaning. And he is present when an over-the-hill actor, frustrated in his dream of starring in a Kemal Ataturk biopic, stages a military coup during a performance of a melodrama titled "My Fatherland or My Headscarf." Before the snowstorm ends, the coup will result in the horrific torture and murder of many of the town's Islamists and Kurds. It also will put Ka's courage and integrity to a test for which he is unprepared and forever destroy his hopes of happiness.

Now 52, Pamuk is a huge celebrity in his native Turkey, as famous as the most popular politicians, arabesk singers and oil wrestlers. His books have broken all previous sales records for works by a Turkish author, both in Turkey and abroad. This is all the more remarkable because his complex, cerebral, multilayered novels of ideas make great demands on the reader. Last year, "My Name Is Red" won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the world's most lucrative prize for a single work of fiction published in English. He is one of the authors most often mentioned as likely to win the Nobel Prize for literature.

In Maureen Freely, Pamuk seems at last to have found his ideal English translator. Freely, a successful novelist, freelance journalist and daughter of the distinguished travel writer John Freely, is the same age as Pamuk. Although born in the United States, she grew up in Istanbul and has known Pamuk since childhood. She captures his eloquent yet conversational tone in English more exactly and unobtrusively than any previous translator.

Thirty years ago, when he first began pursuing writing as a career, Pamuk spent two years working on a political novel about people like himself: "upper-class or middle-class students who went with their families to summer houses but also played around with guns and Maoist texts and had fanciful ideas about throwing a bomb at the prime minister," as he told British journalist Nicholas Wroe in a recent interview. Before finishing that novel, however, he realized that such a book could probably not be published in Turkey. And even if he were lucky enough to find a publisher willing to take the risk, he might very well end up doing time in jail.

More important, Pamuk's voracious reading of the best Western authors convinced him that Turkish literature was suffering from an overdose of political didacticism and an almost complete neglect of the aesthetic. He then came up with a brilliant idea: He would continue to write about the Turkish issues he knew best but would adopt the stylistic devices pioneered by such Western writers as Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Vladimir Nabokov, Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges. He thus created a new hybrid form -- the experimental, Western-style novel on Turkish themes -- for which he would become famous.

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