by Orhan Pamuk
Knopf. 426 pp. $26.
Two months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Turkish author Orhan Pamuk published an essay in the New York Review of Books (titled “The Anger of the Damned”) in which Pamuk, who is often mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Prize, tried to explain the violent resentment that Muslim societies feel towards the West. Muslim rage, Pamuk wrote, results from a deep sense of inferiority about the backward condition of life in Islamic countries. According to Pamuk, Islamic societies recognize that they have fallen far behind the West and that this state of affairs is, “to some considerable degree,” their own fault. This recognition leads to an “overwhelming feeling of humiliation” that causes many to support anti-Western terrorism. Pamuk counseled America to avoid responding to this terrorism with “impetuous military operations” that would only increase the “artificial tension” between “‘East’ and ‘West,’ or ‘Islam’ and ‘Christian civilization.’” “The problem facing the West,” Pamuk wrote, “is not only to discover which terrorist is preparing a bomb in which tent, which cave, or which street of which city, but also to understand the poor and scorned and ‘wrongful’ majority that does not belong to the Western world.”
One need not endorse Pamuk’s views on American military action to agree on the need for better understanding of the Muslim world. This is especially true with regard to Pamuk’s own country. For decades, Americans have seen Turkey as the model Muslim society, one that combines a tolerant form of Islam with stable democratic institutions. This view reflects America’s appreciation of Turkey’s role as a staunch Cold War ally. It also reflects a willful blindness to history and contemporary Turkish politics. As far as tolerance is concerned, there is little occasion for tolerating non-Muslims in Turkey today, as the country all but eliminated its once sizable Christian minorities through mass murder and deportation in the last century. And modern Turkey’s stability—its resistance to “political Islam” or “Islamism”—has been largely a function of military control. A watered-down Islamist party now governs Turkey, though there is always the possibility of military intervention, as occurred the last time that Islamists finished first, in 1996 parliamentary elections.
In his brilliant new novel, Snow, Pamuk takes up where his New York Review essay left off. Part poetic meditation, part absurdist satire, Snow vividly depicts present-day Turkey as pervaded by despair. The novel addresses the conflict between secularism and Islamism, the different conceptions of religion in Muslim and Western societies, and the impossibility of individualism in Muslim culture. The novel’s insights, sad to say, confirm the civilizational divide that presently exists between Turkey and the West. While Snow helps one understand the poverty and shame that beset Turkey, it also shows how the most powerful elements in Turkish society—the secular nationalists and the Islamists—both utterly reject foundational ideals that can be recognized as authentically Western. As long as these groups retain their influence, Snow suggests, any reconciliation between the Western and Muslim worlds will be no more than superficial.
Set during the early 1990s, Snow takes place mostly in Kars, a desolate city in eastern Turkey. A hundred years ago, when Turks shared the city with Christian Armenians, Kars had wealth and culture. (Snow cautiously alludes to the genocide of the millions of Armenians who once lived in eastern Turkey; their abandoned churches, theaters, and hospitals, now used for appliance warehouses and torture chambers, stand in the novel as reminders of that crime and of the degradation of Turkish culture that followed.) At present, the city is in appalling condition. Pamuk depicts it as unrelentingly poor, dirty, and depressed. Unemployment is rampant; men sit for hours in teahouses, staring blankly at television sets. Young women, exhausted by the beatings they receive from fathers and husbands, are committing suicide. Partly because of Kurdish unrest, and partly because of an upcoming election in which the Islamists are favored, the whole city is bugged by the domestic intelligence service, the MIT. “The only people who can be happy in Kars,” one character says, “are the idiots and the villains.”
Into this world comes the novel’s protagonist, Ka, a failed poet who has spent twelve years living off political asylum benefits in Frankfurt. A disillusioned leftist, Ka is resentful of ideologies that have led him nowhere and is conflicted about his own identity. He affects the air of a European intellectual, but refuses to learn German and returns to Turkey, in part, to find a Turkish girl to marry. When a journalist friend asks him to cover the “suicide epidemic” in Kars, he jumps at the chance. An acquaintance from university days who has recently divorced her husband lives in Kars, and Ka hopes he can convince this woman, Ipek, to return to Frankfurt with him. Ka arrives just before a snowstorm blocks all roads in and out of the city, isolating Kars from outside contact for the next three days.
Ka quickly gets caught up in the violent religious and political struggles that have poisoned Kars. On his first day in town, he witnesses an Islamist assassin kill a university administrator who has banned women students from wearing Islamic headscarves to class. (The transcript of the conversation between the addled assassin and his victim, recorded by one of the ubiquitous MIT microphones, is at once comic and chilling.) That evening, elements of the army, police, and MIT take advantage of the storm to stage a secularist coup, rounding up, torturing, and killing Kars’ Islamists, including several teenagers at the religious high school. Ka is present as the coup is proclaimed in the city’s theater, where soldiers fire into an audience that the coup plotters have intentionally provoked by reviving an anti-Islamist play called “My Fatherland or My Head Scarf.” In a touch of black humor, the coup is led by a broken-down itinerant actor named Sunay, whose megalomaniacal dreams of playing Ataturk are reduced to this real-life parody as the dictator of Kars.
For the next two days, Ka, whose only goal is to stay alive long enough for the roads to clear so he can escape with Ipek, serves as the uneasy mediator between the secularists and the Islamists, who are led by a charismatic terrorist named Blue. Each of these camps despises the other, and both despise the Western values Ka represents. For Sunay and his followers, the secular Enlightenment ideals they claim as their own are merely the cover for aggressive nationalism—for fascism, really. As the title of their play suggests, the conflict they see is not between fundamentalism and individual conscience, or “superstition” and scientific inquiry, but between state and faith. Islamism, they insist, is a movement hatched by foreign enemies who aim to divide Turks and to weaken the fatherland. Islamism must therefore be crushed—as must sentimental intellectuals of Ka’s type who flirt with Western ideals of religious freedom and journalistic truth-telling that can only encourage more internal dissent.
The Islamists from their side also distrust Ka. Pamuk presents some of them as sincerely pious, though hopelessly muddled, the sort of people who think that atheism is a disease one can catch by riding with strangers in elevators, who view reason and logic as Western tools designed to rob them of their faith. Ka does engage in genuinely serious discussions about God with one religious high school student. (These passages are faintly reminiscent of The Brothers Karamazov; one of the novel’s epigraphs is a quotation from Dostoevsky’s notebooks for Karamazov.) For most of the Islamists, though, the movement has little to do with worship or the life of the spirit. Islamism’s appeal, Pamuk suggests, lies rather in the balm of group solidarity that it provides for people wounded by shame at how their society has fallen behind the West.
The local Islamist leader, Blue, began his career as a self-described “godless leftist” who threw stones at American sailors. His hatred of the West eventually led him to Islamism and he spent years fighting alongside the Chechens and the Bosnians. He has no interest in God; Islamism is a vehicle for his implacable anger against the outside forces that have diminished his civilization. For example, he bewails the fact that no one any longer reads the thousand-year-old Persian epic Shehname. Because of “the spell of the West,” one cannot purchase in Istanbul a work once known by millions from Iran to Bosnia. This, he tells an incredulous Ka, is why Islamists kill. (The Western reader finds himself grasping for parallels—say, Christian terrorists murdering people to restore Beowulf to its proper place in the literary canon.)
Like the secular nationalists, the Islamists have little time for Ka’s individualism. One of the novel’s subplots involves Ka’s return to religious belief. An atheist who has written nothing for years, Ka finds poems suddenly coming to him in Kars, and he attributes this creativity to a newfound love for God. Ka has no desire to join the Islamists, though; for him, belief is a solitary matter, a personal relationship with God. The nationalists and Islamists alike dismiss this as Western nonsense. You can’t believe in God and live apart from the Islamists, Sunay admonishes Ka: it’s either us or them. For his part, Blue mocks Ka’s return to faith. “I don’t want to destroy your illusions, but your love for God comes out of Western romantic novels. In a place like this, if you worship God as a European, you’re bound to be a laughingstock . . . . First try to be like everyone else. Then try to believe in God.”
“First try to be like everyone else.” The message that comes through Snow most clearly is the hostility of the most powerful elements in Turkish society to anything authentically Western, particularly the claims of individual conscience. At the moment, Snow suggests, the most powerful people in Turkey are fanatics like Sunay and Blue, and the one thing that unites them is their violent resistance to the values that the West holds most dear. This is a depressing message for those who believe, like Pamuk, that Western values are basically right and that cross-cultural reconciliation is the only way to prevent more violent conflict between our two civilizations. After reading Snow, one understands more clearly the awful conditions that “the poor and scorned” of today’s Turkey face, including the terrible choice between a brutal nationalism and a murderous Islamism. But one also understands better the difficulties that lie in the way of any real reconciliation between the Western and Muslim worlds.
Mark L. Movsesian is a professor of law at Hofstra University.