The story is set in the city of Kars which exists in the north eastern part of Turkey.
Kars is now believed to be the most impoverished and ignored part of Turkey. Ka, a poet, has been in exile for 12 years but returns to Istanbul for his mother’s funeral. Posing as a journalist, Ka makes his way to Kars, a decaying city, also to investigate the tidal wave of suicides among schoolgirls forbidden to wear their headscarves. Bogged down by snowstorm, Ka witnesses violent clashes between Kurdish separatists, political Islamists and secular government officials. He is there in the city to interview the “headscarf girls” who have tried to commit suicide.
The focal theme of the book is strongly echoed through these words of the character Fazil: “We will spend the rest of our days here arguing about what sort of scarf women should wrap around their heads, and no one will care in the slightest as we’re eaten up by our own petty, idiotic quarrels.”
The most intriguing part of the book arrives when military coup takes place at National theatre while a play on headscarf girls is being enacted. The soldiers open fire at the audience who mistakes real firing for a part of play. At one instance the novel seems to be a love story between Ka and Ipek set in distressed times and at another level it is a doorway into the tussle between religion and politics.
Ka, is a nomadic figure. He has denounced the traditional faith of his childhood—the idealistic leftist politics of his youth, after being cynical of how the authoritarian, violent state ends young people’s idealism. In the wake of his withdrawal from politics to art, in Germany, Ka reduces himself to a secluded a figure and finds himself misunderstood by the locals. He has also given up writing poems for a while. Somehow, he accepts a journalistic assignment to probe deeper into the reasons behind the ban on “headscarf girls” in school.
All characters in the novel search for stability within Turkey’s delicate, vacillating identity though it normally dodges them. All of them are beset by both inner and outer anxieties. Pamuk, at this point, makes out that politics and psychology are inextricable aspects in any society.
The predicament of Turkish people is made all the more compounded after the assault on National Theatre that leaves many pupils of Islamic high school killed.
The soldiers’ leader on the occasion is Z Demirkol, an ex-communist whose presence proves that he has been given charge of protecting a secular state while Islamists win over the hearts of the poor, downtrodden and deprived segment of the society. The state forces believe that Blue, a wanted Islamist terrorist is involved in destabilizing the city.
And yet, of course, it is this solemn boy, whose name is Fazil, and his best friend, Necip, who is shot to death before he can publish his science fictions, and the girls they love, who are suspended from school for refusing to remove their head scarves–it is these passionate, talkative, and pious young people, as pure of heart as they are self-righteous, who monopolize our attention. In the northern city of Kars, near the border with Armenia, God is real to them even if He is not to the secular intellectual and blocked poet Ka–the old friend Pamuk is supposed to be writing this book about–who has come by bus from Istanbul, in a blizzard, to investigate an epidemic of suicides.
Yes, a poet named Ka in a city named Kars. And kar means “snow” in Turkish. But having just returned for his mother’s funeral after twelve years of exile in Germany following the 1980 military coup, Ka is really looking for love, roots, meaning, and his muse. Snow is not only a silence inside, reminding him of God; it also makes him feel at home in the world. So what if these true-believing students accuse him of atheism? So what if the newspaper reports his behavior a day in advance, and a night at the theater turns into Marat/Sade, and the gorgeous Ipek won’t go to Frankfurt with him?
Suddenly, he is writing poems again. Indeed, poems seem to seize or occlude him, like embolisms or a fit. He must retire immediately to a teahouse. Meanwhile, prisoners are tortured in red and yellow rooms. A minister of education is assassinated by a fundamentalist nut. A terrorist fresh from Bosnia coaches disaffected students. The Party of God may win the municipal elections.
And so when the snow cuts Kars off from the rest of the country, the army, the police, and a very Brechtian repertory theater troupe stage a coup, a parody of 1980, that gives a whole new meaning to politics of the city.
Ka witnesses the killing of a local school head (for upholding the ban on hijabs) by a young Islamist in a cafe. The chief antagonist in the novel is not “Blue” but the brutal and dubious character, Z.Demirkol.
With Kars temporarily snowbound and unaccountable, the forces of repression take their chance to smash the Islamists with searing brutality. Demirkol’s puppet is the has-been theatrical star, Sunay Zaim (famed for his resemblance to Ataturk), whose performance of the play My Fatherland or My Headscarf at the city’s main theatre becomes the pretext for bloody suppression, with soldiers killing the religious high-school kids in the audience who have come in support of the “headscarf girls”.
The great vital metaphor in Orhan Pamuk’s Snow is ingrained in the title, and the novel’s major themes are linked with it. Ka, like Kafka’s K, is a witness to happenings in the city, or seldom a catalyst for them instead of being a clear-cut protagonist. He discovers love, ordeal and motivation in Kars: all of the town’s deepest hopes and fears float up violently when snow (in Turkish, “kar”) blocks all ways in and out.
Ka, bound by no traditional faith, having denounced his youthful political idealism and deprived of poetic insight, finds himself in the hullabaloo of snowbound Kars, he cogitates on the subjects of religion and atheism, authoritarianism and freedom, aesthetics and politics, love and duty. Rediscovering poetic flash, nineteen poems are “dictated” to Ka during his sojourn, which he attempts to recount through the use of a snowflake diagram, in the years after those three utterly tense days in the town.
His poems relay a compound individuality, irreducible to plain labels, based on the axis of logic, imagination and memory in his snowflake diagram. Snow thus becomes a double metaphor: it represents both confinement and freedom, and, through Ka’s wavering between these two poles, this duplicity signifies the dramatic tension between personhood and politics.
Yet it is Ka’s apparently vague fickleness that causes doubt among many in Kars, when, after getting dragged into the town’s political crisis, a local paper accuses him of being a spy. He doesn’t tend to side with anyone thus each group sees him with suspicion. Though, his poetic art reduces to mere political propaganda.
Ka is likewise belittled for his naivety in dissenting and protesting state violence.
As one critic has wisely observed that each character has a a double in Pamuk’s writing. Ka’s “double” is Sunay, who stages a “postmodern” military coup in Kars, who devotes his “art” to the service of the state, prompting the imprisonment, torture and killings of Kurds and Islamists in the town.
Sunay embraces politics as the zenith of his art, to serve the fatherland, while Ka embraces its incongruities ingeniously but does all to escape its practical consequences. Most of all, this escape is an attempt to cast off the unwanted labels of being a Europhile, a naive liberal, an Islamist sympathizer, a spy and informant, and so on – all the things he is, in the end, accused of because of his stance not to side with anyone, but to devote his life for art and love. In the tumultuous arena of politics, art merely becomes escapism, and so, providing no solutions, and finding no vindication in the blood and suppression of Kars.
What puts Snow on the pedestal is its unfathomable observation. No one escapes – the old left, the Islamists, the brutal secular state – not even Ka and the bourgeois liberal intellectualism remain unaffected. The manuscript including Ka’s nineteen poems is vanished, disappearing like a decomposed snowflake, and Orhan, who has come to write about Ka’s life, finds that the poet was generally unpopular and suspected.
What distinguishes Pamuk from his other contemporaries is his refusal to toe the line and willingness to relate to the experiences that are animated and narrated realistically in his book. There are episodes in this novel – such as the conversation in a coffee shop between the director of the education institute and his murderer about the state’s prohibition of headscarves – that elucidates the conflict between secular and extremist Islamic worlds better than any work of non- fiction.
As Pamuk’s translator Maureen Freely notes, Snow’s only real heroes are the long suffering people of Kars who merely get by, surviving the rhetoric and machinations of middle class elites, secular or religious, European or Turkish, and the presumptions that they make in their claims over the “silent majority”. This leaves us with a book that nobody on any side of the great rhetoric about a “clash of civilisations” would feel comfortable with. This book defends no slogans or caucus, and it is this meaningful lack of advocacy that makes Snow such a riveting and interesting novel. It simply transcends the polemical discourse of our times and should always be treated in that manner.
Intriguing and coherent in its portrayal of inexplicable contradictions, Snow is not a western novel therefore does not adhere to western conventions of plot and character. The killing of the Director of Education, the army coup, and the follow-up are told, not as exhilarating plot essentials, but as vehicles for probing into deep-rooted conflicts arising out of opposing philosophical and political movements which try to win over the hearts and minds of the poor people of Kars. An Islamist student explains the fundamental religious question to Ka: “If there is no God and no heaven, how do you explain all the suffering of the poor?…What are we for here for…if it’s all for nothing?”