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Layers of Politics, Humanity in Pamuk's 'Snow'

Oct 26, 2004 (Morning Edition)

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Turkish author Orhan Pamuk's Snow is an admittedly political novel. But while its subject matter touches upon everything from the European Union to Islamic fundamentalism, Snow has been praised for its indelible characters and an insistence on a basic humanity. NPR's Steve Inskeep spoke with Pamuk about his latest novel.

Read an Excerpt of Orhan Pamuk's Snow:

The silence of snow, thought the man sitting just behind the bus driver. If this were the beginning of a poem, he would have called the thing he felt inside him the silence of snow.

He'd boarded the bus from Erzurum to Kars with only seconds to spare. He'd just come into the station on a bus from Istanbul — a snowy, stormy, two-day journey — and was rushing up and down the dirty wet corridors with his bag in tow, looking for his connection, when someone told him the bus for Kars was leaving immediately.

He'd managed to find it, an ancient Magirus, but the conductor had just shut the luggage compartment and, being "in a hurry," refused to open it again. That's why our traveler had taken his bag on board with him; the big dark-red Bally valise was now wedged between his legs. He was sitting next to the window and wearing a thick charcoal coat he'd bought at a Frankfurt Kaufhof five years earlier. We should note straightaway that this soft, downy beauty of a coat would cause him shame and disquiet during the days he was to spend in Kars, while also furnishing a sense of security.

As soon as the bus set off, our traveler glued his eyes to the window next to him; perhaps hoping to see something new, he peered into the wretched little shops and bakeries and broken-down coffeehouses that lined the streets of Erzurum's outlying suburbs, and as he did it began to snow. It was heavier and thicker than the snow he'd seen between Istanbul and Erzurum. If he hadn't been so tired, if he'd paid a bit more attention to the snowflakes swirling out of the sky like feathers, he might have realized that he was traveling straight into a blizzard; he might have seen at the start that he was setting out on a journey that would change his life forever and chosen to turn back.

But the thought didn't even cross his mind. As evening fell, he lost himself in the light still lingering in the sky above; in the snowflakes whirling ever more wildly in the wind he saw nothing of the impending blizzard but rather a promise, a sign pointing the way back to the happiness and purity he had known, once, as a child. Our traveler had spent his years of happiness and childhood in Istanbul; he'd returned a week ago, for the first time in twelve years, to attend his mother's funeral, and having stayed there four days he decided to take this trip to Kars. Years later, he would still recall the extraordinary beauty of the snow that night; the happiness it brought him was far greater than any he'd known in Istanbul. He was a poet and, as he himself had written — in an early poem still largely unknown to Turkish readers — it snows only once in our dreams.

As he watched the snow fall outside his window, as slowly and silently as the snow in a dream, the traveler fell into a long-desired, long-awaited reverie; cleansed by memories of innocence and childhood, he succumbed to optimism and dared to believe himself at home in this world. Soon afterward, he felt something else that he had not known for quite a long time and fell asleep in his seat.

Let us take advantage of this lull to whisper a few biographical details. Although he had spent the last twelve years in political exile in Germany, our traveler had never been very much involved in politics. His real passion, his only thought, was for poetry. He was forty-two years old and single, never married. Although it might be hard to tell as he curled up in his seat, he was tall for a Turk, with brown hair and a pale complexion that had become even paler during this journey. He was shy and enjoyed being alone. Had he known what would happen soon after he fell asleep — with the swaying of the bus his head would come to lean first on his neighbor's shoulder and then on the man's chest — he would have been very much ashamed. For the traveler we see leaning on his neighbor is an honest and well-meaning man and full of melancholy, like those Chekhov characters so laden with virtues that they never know success in life. We'll have a lot to say about melancholy later on. But as he is not likely to remain asleep for very long in that awkward position, suffice it for now to say that the traveler's name is Kerim Alakusoglu, that he doesn't like this name but prefers to be called Ka (from his initials), and that I'll be doing the same in this book. Even as a schoolboy, our hero stubbornly insisted on writing Ka on his homework and exam papers; he signed Ka on university registration forms; and he took every opportunity to defend his right to continue to do so, even if it meant conflict with teachers and government officials. His mother, his family, and his friends all called him Ka, and, having also published some poetry collections under this name, he enjoyed a small enigmatic fame as Ka, both in Turkey and in Turkish circles in Germany.

That's all we have time for at present. As the bus driver wished his passengers a safe journey as we departed Erzurum station, let me just add these words: "May your road be open, dear Ka." But I don't wish to deceive you. I'm an old friend of Ka's, and I begin this story knowing everything that will happen to him during his time in Kars.

After leaving Horasan, the bus turned north, heading directly for Kars. As it climbed the winding road, the driver had to slam on the brakes to avoid a horse and carriage that had sprung up out of nowhere on one of the hairpin bends, and Ka woke up. Fear had already fostered a strong fellow feeling among the passengers; before long, Ka too felt at one with them. Even though he was sitting just behind the bus driver, Ka was soon behaving like the passengers behind him: Whenever the bus slowed to negotiate a bend in the road or avoid going over the edge of a cliff, he stood up to get a better view; when the zealous passenger who'd committed himself to helping the driver by wiping the condensation from the windshield missed a corner, Ka would point it out with his forefinger (which contribution went unnoticed); and when the blizzard got so bad that the wipers could no longer keep the snow from piling up on the windshield, Ka joined the driver in trying to guess where the road was.

Once caked with snow, the road signs were impossible to read. When the snowstorm began to rage in earnest, the driver turned off his brights and dimmed the lights inside the bus, hoping to conjure up the road out of the semidarkness. The passengers fell into a fearful silence with their eyes on the scene outside: the snow-covered streets of destitute villages, the dimly lit, ramshackle one-story houses, the roads to farther villages that were already closed, and the ravines barely visible beyond the streetlamps. If they spoke, it was in whispers.

So it was in the gentlest of whispers that Ka's neighbor, the man onto whose shoulder Ka had fallen asleep earlier, asked him why he was traveling to Kars. It was easy to see that Ka was not a local.

"I'm a journalist," Ka whispered in reply. This was a lie. "I'm interested in the municipal elections — and also the young women who've been committing suicide." This was true.

"When the mayor of Kars was murdered, every newspaper in Istanbul ran the story," Ka's neighbor replied. "And it's the same for the women who've been committing suicide." It was hard for Ka to know whether it was pride or shame he heard in the man's voice. Three days later, standing in the snow on Halitpasa Avenue with tears streaming from his eyes, Ka was to see this slim handsome villager again.

During the desultory conversation that continued on and off for the rest of the bus journey, Ka found out that the man had just taken his mother to Erzurum because the hospital in Kars wasn't good enough, that he was a livestock dealer who served the villages in the Kars vicinity, that he'd been through hard times but hadn't become a rebel, and that — for mysterious reasons he did not disclose to Ka — he was sorry not for himself but for his country and was happy to see that a well-read, educated gentleman like Ka had taken the trouble to travel all the way from Istanbul to find out more about his city's problems. There was something so noble in the plainness of his speech and the pride of his bearing that Ka felt respect for him.

His very presence was calming. Not once during twelve years in Germany had Ka known such inner peace; it had been a long time since he had had the fleeting pleasure of empathizing with someone weaker than himself. He remembered trying to see the world through the eyes of a man who could feel love and compassion. As he did the same now, he no longer felt so fearful of the relentless blizzard. He knew they were not destined to roll off a cliff. The bus would be late, but it would reach its destination.

When, at ten o'clock at night, three hours behind schedule, the bus began its crawl through the snow-covered streets of Kars, Ka couldn't recognize the city at all. He couldn't even see the railroad station, where he'd arrived twenty years earlier by steam engine, nor could he see any sign of the hotel to which his driver had taken him that day (following a full tour of the city): the Hotel Republic, "a telephone in every room." It was as if everything had been erased, lost beneath the snow. He saw a hint of the old days in the horse-drawn carriages here and there, waiting in garages, but the city itself looked much poorer and sadder than he remembered. Through the frozen windows of the bus, Ka saw the same concrete apartments that had sprung up all over Turkey during the past ten years, and the same Plexiglas panels; he also saw banners emblazoned with campaign slogans strung above every street.

He stepped off the bus. As his foot sank into the soft blanket of snow, a sharp blast of cold air shot up past the cuffs of his trousers. He'd booked a room at the Snow Palace Hotel. When he went to ask the conductor where it was, he thought two of the faces among the travelers waiting for their luggage looked familiar, but with the snow falling so thick and fast he couldn't work out who they were.

He saw them again in the Green Pastures Café, where he went after setting into his hotel: a tired and careworn but still handsome and eye-catching man with a fat but animated woman who seemed to be his lifelong companion. Ka had seen them perform in Istanbul in the seventies, when they were leading lights of the revolutionary theater world. The man's name was Sunay Zaim. As he watched the couple, he let his mind wander and was eventually able to work out that the woman reminded him of a classmate from primary school. There were a number of other men at their table, and they all had the deathly pallor that speaks of a life on the stage; what, he wondered, was a small theater company doing in this forgotten city on a snowy night in February? Before leaving the restaurant, which twenty years ago had been full of government officials in coats and ties, Ka thought he saw one of the heroes of the seventies' militant left sitting at another table. But it was as if a blanket of snow had settled over his memories of this man, just as it had settled over the restaurant and the failing, gasping city itself.

Were the streets empty because of the snow, or were these frozen pavements always so desolate? As he walked he took careful notice of the writing on the walls — the election posters, the advertisements for schools and restaurants, and the new posters that the city officials hoped would end the suicide epidemic: human beings are god's masterpieces, and suicide is blasphemy. Through the frozen windows of a half-empty teahouse, Ka saw a group of men huddled around a television set. It cheered him just a little to see, still standing, these old stone Russian houses that in his memory had made Kars such a special place.

The Snow Palace Hotel was one of those elegant Baltic buildings. It was two stories high, with long narrow windows that looked out onto a courtyard and an arch that led out to the street. The arch was 110 years old and high enough for horse-drawn carriages to pass through with ease; Ka felt a shiver of excitement as he walked under it, but he was too tired to ask himself why. Let's just say it had something to do with one of Ka's reasons for coming to Kars.

Three days earlier, Ka had paid a visit to the Istanbul offices of the Republican to see a friend from his youth. It was this friend, Taner, who had told him about the municipal elections coming up and how — just as in the city of Batman — an extraordinary number of girls in Kars had succumbed to a suicide epidemic. Taner went on to say that if Ka wanted to write about this subject and see what Turkey was really like after his twelve-year absence, he should think of going to Kars; with no one else available for this assignment, he could provide Ka with a current press card; what's more, he said, Ka might be interested to know that their old classmate Ipek was now living in Kars. Although separated from her husband, Muhtar, she'd stayed on in the city and was living with her father and sister in the Snow Palace Hotel. As Ka listened to Taner, who wrote political commentaries for the Republican, he remembered how beautiful Ipek was.

Cavit, the hotel clerk, sat in the high-ceilinged lobby watching television. He handed Ka the key, and Ka went up to the second floor to Room 203; having shut the door behind him, he felt calmer. After careful self-examination, he concluded that, notwithstanding the fears that had plagued him throughout his journey, neither his heart nor his mind were troubled by the possibility that Ipek might be here in the hotel. After a lifetime in which every experience of love was touched by shame and suffering, the prospect of falling in love filled Ka with an intense, almost instinctive dread.

In the middle of the night, before getting into bed, Ka padded across the room in his pajamas, parted the curtains, and watched the thick, heavy snowflakes falling without end.

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