Book Reviews

Judith's Book Reviews

Meet Judith Rodby, Ph.D., Professor Emerita of English from CSU, Chico. Judith leads our monthly book club and is a voracious reader who enjoys connecting with fellow book lovers. Judith led The National Reading Initiative for the National Writing Project and has facilitated book clubs for children, adolescents, and adults. Be sure to check back frequently to learn about her latest favorites, and browse the archive for even more!

 Snow by Orphan Pamuk

In Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, written and translated in the early 2000’s, we find the tracks of Turkey’s secular westernization and the continuing struggle to cover them over. This is a novel situated in a country veering among extremes. 

A major question at the heart of Snow is how to read it, how to walk the line between parody or farce and serious realism.

The story takes place over three days during a sometimes mystical, sometimes oppressive, snowstorm. Pamuk is the narrator telling the story of Ka (an abbreviated name reminiscent of Kemal Ataturk, Kurds and Armenians, K as in Kafka…Pamuk loves codes) in Kars,  a forlorn city in Anatolia – far eastern Turkey.   Ka is a poet who hasn’t written a poem in four years, but this dry spell will end as he comes to Kars from Germany to report on upcoming elections and a spate of suicides by headscarf girls, young Islamist women who, contrary to the governing party’s policies, insist on covering their heads.

 The ubiquitous snow functions as a metaphor for troubles in Ka’s spirit.  The westernized atheist Ka finds revelations—God and literary inspiration—in the snow storm. In the tone of parody, his poems swirl as verbal visions; he has to sit down to receive them. Walking an interpretive tightrope, we the readers are never treated to these poems nor is anyone else. Even Pamuk the narrator cannot find the poet’s notebook after his death. All we have is a snowflake diagram of poetic impulses (a kind of Western/Enlightenment move to record and measure) and a table of contents.  The poems themselves and their overblown revelatory arrival are … parotic.  Coleridge, Ka is not.

Snow (as metaphor) also covers the past and offers the hope of new beginnings to the head scarfed women and the young radicalized men from the religious school.  Further, snow works on a macro-level to describe the state of Turkey; snow covers the mud of Turkish history and its Armenian atrocities; snow also stands in for ideologies of purity – Western and Eastern- competing for attention in the novel and its many characters.

Pamuk is a master of intricate, even obsessive (Nabokov? Dostoyevsky?) story- telling. Sometimes the wry parody and realism intermingle as in the antics of terrorists, spies, undercover police, double agents, assassins, theater troupes – agitprop doubles, and newspaper reports written by soothsayers.

Pamuk’s novels are tapestries and labyrinths: the novelist revels in images and symbols: the color green, eyes both blue and green, teashops, rake and cigarettes; talismans lie in a charcoal-colored dog and a coat from Frankfurt. Pamuk indulges in nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire and Armenian architecture: arches and stairs.  Can we trust the narrator?  Can we come to care about characters who are more often than not caricatures? Does that matter? Are there too many words and too much snow in this novel?  Depends upon how you read it—and how the reader chooses to find meaning among the human foibles, the mud of history, nation building and religion, and Pamuk’s ubiquitous image of snow.