Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The timing of this Orhan Pamuk development is funny: I finished reading his Snow on Monday. Yes, it took me this long (I began reading the novel in Istanbul in January).

But it was different from the way it is with some books, those that are a torture to finish. I enjoyed Snow - it's just that every time something distracted me from the book, it was like I was leaving Turkey, just because I had to, difficult-but-what-can-I-do-about-it sort of thing, and while I was away (not reading), I knew that the country and my friends there (read: the city of Kars and the book's characters) continued to live their lives no better and no worse than when I was around, and when I had a chance to return to the book, it was like returning to Turkey - seeing everyone anew, learning of some things that had happened in my absense but remaining unaware of others, feeling totally happy about seeing some old faces and indifferent about others, knowing that I'd soon have to leave again but would likely find a way to come back.

Just like the real life.


Snow is a novel about religion and politics - and about so much more.

Politics in Snow is farce, theater, both literally and figuratively. The central event is a coup carried out by actors - a coup de théâtre, as one character calls it.

...everyone in Kars could see the wisdom of regarding the 'staged coup' more as a strange theatrical event than a political one.


'I know that you staged this coup not just for the sake of politics but also as a thing of beauty and in the name of art,' said Ka.

The result is pathetic, of course, and so are the existing alternatives:

'I'm glad I got to see with my own eyes how low the level of political understanding has sunk - young and old alike, they're hopeless. I went to this meeting to protest against this coup, but now I think the army is right to want to keep them out of politics. They're the dregs of society, the most wretched, muddled, brainless people in the city. I'm glad the army couldn't stand by and let us abandon our future to these shameless looters. I'll say this again, Kadife, before meddling with national politics, consider your actions carefully.'


One way to remember the novel is as a play staged in a provincial theater: dim lighting throughout the show; snow effect is achieved with a single mirrored disco ball, a tacky thing, which also somehow serves to emphasize Kars' utter remoteness; background decorations have faded, but one can still distinguish a few formerly Armenian mansions in miserable condition, warm yellow light of the tea house windows, interrupted by dark male shadows of the unemployed, dozens of pale blue rectangles of the TV screens (the whole city is watching Marianna, a Latin American soap that used to be wildly popular in the former Soviet Union as well), a huge, low-quality reproduction of a tourist postcard of the unreachable Istanbul, and the undecipherable neon lights meant to represent Europe (aka Germany).


Religion in Snow is as much politics as it is theater:

'To play the rebel heroine in Turkey , you don't pull off your scarf. You put it on.'

As if 'to play' is the same as 'to be'. And as if to be a rebel or to pretend to be one is the same as to believe in God.


It may seem at first that the novel's central conflict is between atheism and religion, but, at a closer look, it turns out to be between the private and the public, one's freedom to be on his or her own vs. the oppressive judgment of the collective:

'I want a God who doesn't ask me to take off my shoes in his presense, and who doesn't make me fall to my knees to kiss people's hands. I want a God who understands my need for solitude.'

'There is only one God,' said the sheikh. 'He sees everything, understands everyone. Even your need for solitude. If you believed in Him, if you knew He understood your need for solitude, you wouldn't feel so alone.'

And roughly half the book later:

'I think I may be starting to believe in God here,' said Ka with a smile. 'It's something I may be hiding even from myself.'

'You're deceiving yourself! Even if you did believe in God, it would make no sense to believe alone. You'd have to believe in Him as the poor do; you'd have to become one of them. It's only by eating what they eat, living where they live, laughing at the same jokes and getting angry whenever they do that you can believe in their God. If you're leading an utterly different life, you can't be worshipping the same God they are. God is just enough to know that it's not a question of reason or logic but how you live your life.


This would sound pompous, but Snow is a book you start reading hoping to learn something about Turkey - and you end up grasping something minor but quite universal.

*** ran a text yesterday on Pamuk and Snow (in Russian), by Andrei Kolesnikov, deputy editor-in-chief of the Izvestia daily and just a namesake of Andrei Kolesnikov who covers Putin for the Kommersant and wrote a book about the Orange Revolution earlier this year.

Here're two tiny fragments:

[...] The novel hasn't been translated into Russian because the translator of the renowned Turkish author died. This is great loss for the Russian readers, because Russia, just like Turkey, exists on the spot where civilizations meet, its fight against the co-existing national inferiority and superiority complexes is as futile, it is as submerged in religious confrontation with the 'materialistic' West, attempting to promote Orthodox Christianity to the status of the highest state value.


Orhan Pamuk [...] is the Russian Turkish writer who has ruthlessly deconstructed all possible Russian and Turkish complexes that have to do with our relationship with the Western civilization. For this - and for the truth - he is not loved. Maybe it's better not to translate Snow into Russian: the Islamists would wage jihad, the Orthodox Christians would anathemize the book, and supporters of sovereign democracy would file a libel lawsuit.


I was reading Snow when the bloody coup attempt was taking place in Nalchik last week, and I did think of the similarities between the fictional coup de théâtre and the real-life event: how weird, how unforeseen and how pointless both of them are.

Kolesnikov mentions Nalchik in his piece, too, only in a different context and in a way I can't really agree with:


At the same time, if translated, Snow could've become a textbook for those officers of the Russian special services who are willing to figure out the psychology of political Islamists. There's an Islamist underground in the novel similar to the one in Nalchik: until they begin to act directly, it's impossible to tell a peaceful civilian from a religious extremist. This metamorphosis occurs spontaneously and often incidentally, but there is a basis for it in the spiritual experience of radicalization of Islam and cultivation of the ideology of resistance to the West and to atheism.



More on Pamuk and Snow on this blog - here, here and, in yesterday's post, here.

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