Earlier this summer, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the Turkish government’s decision to ban head scarves in schools. It was a victory for the Turkish state, but unlikely to put an end to controversy. One need only pick up Orhan Pamuk’s mournful new novel, Snow, to understand how divisive an issue this is in Turkey. Set between 1999 and 2001, Pamuk’s tale revolves around the suicides of three teenage Muslim girls. Islamic clerics blame their deaths on the government for punishing the girls for wearing head scarves. Secularists argue that they were just depressed and did what teenagers sometimes sadly do.
A reclusive poet named Ka journeys to the small border town of Kars to find out the truth—mirroring a similar visit made by Pushkin in 1829. As it turns out, Ka is an even less faithful reporter than his Russian counterpart. While tensions ratchet upward toward a revolution, Ka drifts through town in a somnolent haze, dazzled by a heavy snowstorm. As the flakes drift down, muffling gunshots and cries for help, Ka wanders into tea rooms to jot down poems and moon about an impractical crush. Maintaining distance, obviously, is his forte. He witnesses an Islamic hit on a government minister, and the death of a sweet young boy—and neither stop him from writing his poetry.
Pamuk has claimed that he is not a political writer, but he will have difficulty defending that position with Snow, which dramatizes many of the issues facing the Middle East today: the separation of church and state, poverty, modernization, and the influence of the West. The book’s compelling side drama of a writer struggling to remain apolitical is nearly occluded in the blizzard of themes. In time, it would be nice to have the pleasure of reading Snow not simply as the political novel it certainly is, but as a work of art.