In the common run of things, I read and enjoy many books often criticized in the wider world as "boring." Omnibus editions of abstract contemporary poetry? Bring them on. Tomes of existentialist biography? Among my favorite books around. Histories of textile crafts? Can't imagine life without them. I generally consider calling a book boring to be a failure on the part of the reader, and when I read an essay that levels this criticism I am often left with a shrewd suspicion that the book under review is one I'll appreciate.
All of which said...I must admit that every time I picked up Orhan Pamuk's Snow, I was overwhelmed by sleep. Literally. I had trouble reading more than ten pages at a time without nodding off, so strong was the novel's soporific power. When you note its 440-page length, you'll have some notion why my post on Pamuk is overdue. This is especially disappointing because the book has so much potential, and sounds like irresistible literary candy to me rather than the mildly interesting but narcotic slog it turned out to be. I went into it expecting a Turkish version of the tight, labyrinthine plot twists in Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh, but without the magical realism and with a sinister pinch of David Lynch added. (Amazing, in other words. Do any of you know a novel that is actually like this?) Alas, it is more like a twelve-hour version of My Dinner with André, transposed into a Turkish tea-house and with occasional random shooting thrown in.
So many things about Pamuk's premise are intriguing to me. We have a frame narrative in which the unreliable narrator "Orhan Pamuk" pieces together, from interviews and documents, the story of his late poet friend Ka, and in particular a pivotal three-day trip Ka took to the provincial town of Kars, four years before his death. Ka is supposed to have composed his final book of poetry in Kars, although the manuscript has since gone missing. Orhan's romanticism, feelings of inadequacy, sorrow at Ka's death, and incomplete information lead him to draw conclusions about the poet's brilliance and seriousness that the reader will probably not share. Likewise, Ka's own set of biases and behaviors—including his childhood nostalgia for Kars, to which he is returning after many years; his infantile notions of love at first sight; his capricious and vacillating relationship to God and religion; the extreme, dream-like density that overtakes him at key moments; and his simplistic pursuit of the feeling he calls "happiness"—make him deeply untrustworthy as well. There are some clever moments that make use of the unreliable, un-self-aware narration, especially early in the book. I liked the description of the bus Ka rides in on, and the atmosphere as the falling snow gets heavier and heavier:
Fear had already fostered a strong fellow feeling among the passengers, and before long Ka also felt at one with them. Even though he was sitting just behind the driver, Ka was soon doing the same as 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 for a better view; when the zealous passenger who'd committed himself to helping the driver by wiping the condensation from the windscreen missed a corner, Ka would point it out to the man with his forefinger (which contribution went unnoticed); and when the blizzard became so bad that the wipers could no longer keep the snow from piling up on the windscreen, Ka would join the driver in trying to guess where the road was.
On one hand, we have probably all experienced that sensation of fellow-feeling that results from being in an enclosed area with other people during an emergency. On the other hand, it's pretty plain here that while Ka may feel "at one" with the other passengers, they probably don't feel at one with him. All his actions allow him the illusion of belonging, but no one else is responding to him: the wiper of the windshield either ignores his contribution or doesn't even realize he's there, while the driver can hardly benefit from Ka sharing in his attempts to guess the position of the road. It's a nice foreshadowing of the challenges Ka will meet later on in the town, and his over-confidence in his own impressions, even when those impressions veer wildly from one extreme to another from moment to moment. Orhan's narration seems to realize some of Ka's foibles (he points out the ignored input on the windscreen, for example), but also seems to buy in, at surprising moments, to Ka's own illusions.
In any case, this tricky double-blind narration is accompanied by yet more promising elements. Take the classic locked-door setup: all roads into Kars are closed due to heavy snow just as Ka arrives. Or the sinister provincial theater troupe which arrives on the same train as Ka and strikes him as oddly familiar. Or the dueling shady law-enforcement agencies leaning on the town paper, which reports events before they happen. Or the multiple tragic and spooky background events of Kars (an epidemic of young women have been committing suicide; a sherbet vendor may or may not be poisoning her customers; a small-time political coup will soon erupt on live television; a minister of education is gunned down in a pastry shop). With this great line-up, how could the book lose?
Through near-glacial narration, for one thing. See the passages on sleep, unavoidable sleep, above. I suppose one could view Pamuk's super-slow pacing as a clever reference to the fact that the town is locked down by ice, but in practice it very much drags by. Also, Pamuk's approach to politics strikes me as clumsy. Unlike in, say, The Moor's Last Sigh or Mario Vargas Llosa's Conversation in the Cathedral, where the political concerns are reflected in the events and fabric of the narration, in Snow we get chapters on chapters of people actually sitting in the various hotel rooms and tea-shops of Kars, and conversing about the relationship between the West and the East, the atheists versus the Islamists, and so on. I'm not saying there isn't a way to write an engaging novel made up largely of conversation, but in my opinion Snow is not that novel. The result here ends up feeling more like an author's notes on themes he wishes to address in a novel, than the novel itself. Add to that a similarly half-baked attempt at addressing gender issues, which pays lip service to the fetishization of female beauty but nonetheless fails endow its female characters with much depth beyond their opinions on whether to wear headscarves, and you have a frustrating execution of a stellar concept.
Notes on Disgust
Other than a few passing references to things most readers will find mildly disgusting (one character remembers a time several years ago when some religious high school students threw a bucket of sewer water over a statue, for example), the explicit mentions of disgust all involve the radical Islamist character Blue. As a Westernized Turk and rumored atheist who has spent many years in Germany, Ka is already the object of Blue's contempt, but when Ka displays these Westernized traits openly, Blue's emotions cross the line into disgust. Pausing in his "reminiscences" about a German couple he knows (he is actually making the whole thing up), Ka notes that "Blue was now eyeing him with open revulsion." Later, when Blue has been manipulated into collaborating with people from different factions from his own (Kurds and Westernized atheists), we have this scene:
Holding her father's hand, Kadife tried to make sense of the disgust and contempt she could see in Blue's face. Blue felt that he had walked into a trap, but, fearing what people would say about him if he left, he remained, against his better judgment.
In the first scene, disgust functions as a clear-cut policer of us versus them: Ka is revealing himself to be a proud member of "them" (Westerners), and Blue is repulsed because he considers members of "them" to be less fully human than members of "us." The role of Blue's disgust in the context of the book is to demonstrate to the reader his strong, dehumanizing opinions on Westerners.
In the second scene, some of Blue's disgust is turned inward: he is disgusted with himself for having allowed "them" to contaminate him to the extent that he has agreed to collaborate. Without doubt he is also disgusted at being in the presence of so many people he considers "them." Possibly, he might also be disgusted with himself that he cares enough about "what people would say" to let it influence his actions. For the reader, Blue's disgust in this scene further cements his stand-offish and volatile character. It increases the tension in the scene by convincing us any collaboration involving Blue will be unsuccessful, while making a larger point about the dehumanization of our political opponents. Or at least...that's what I think it's trying to do.
Snow was July's pick for the Wolves reading group. Please join us the last weekend in August for Lydia Davis's The End of the Story!
And thanks to Stefanie of So Many Books for kindly sending me this copy of Pamuk's novel. Despite the fact that I didn't love the book, it was still very nice of you! :-)