I wasn’t sure how to read this book. At first I thought it was going to be one of those books where the power of the language enchants me and carries me through the story. Then I thought that it was going to be a surreal book, like one of Kafka’s. Then I thought perhaps it was a political novel, like one of Graham Greene’s ‘entertainments’.
I never did figure it out. A little of each, perhaps. The story lurched from one incident to another, with me joining the main character in not understanding exactly what was going on. At least there was a main character! The premise is that Ka, a famous poet, gets trapped by a blizzard in a remote town in Turkey, where he’s gone to research an article about suicides among young women and to see an old flame who is now divorced.
And that’s about it. He watches the snow from his hotel room, talks with the women, and wanders around town. He meets—by appointment and by accident—and talks with a number of people, supposedly to learn about the head-scarf girls, young women who are said to have killed themselves rather than remove their head scarves, the wearing of which has been banned in the schools. However, their talks range much further, into history and dreams and religion.
The first part of the book fascinated me but the middle bogged down in confusion. I only kept reading because it was for my book club, but I’m glad I did as the end picked up and the various threads began to make a little more sense. I came to realize that the fragmented story reflected the fragmentation of these people’s lives, rudderless since the breakup of the Ottoman empire, their identity erratic and uncertain. It also reflected the fragmentation of the political body of Turkey, torn between continuing Ataturk’s westernizing reforms, Kurdish separatism and Islamic fundamentalism.
One person in my book club asked if we thought Pamuk deliberately made the book so hard to read. Did he think about the reader or write this book simply for himself? I myself believe that one must always write for oneself, but then the writer has to step back and consider his or her responsibility to the reader.
We talked a lot about the suicides and the political situation. Writing about politics in a novel is dangerous stuff, but Pamuk carries it off with elan. We agreed that the deceptively simple story held a great deal of complexity, with so many different threads that untangling them would be a worthy subject for a doctoral thesis.
We also talked about the progress of Ka’s pursuit of Ipek. I found it curious that he loved her even before he arrived in town, saying that he is the type of man who “‘. . . can fall in love with a woman only if he knows next to nothing about her.'” However, another person pointed out that this ability to reach across the gulf that separates one person from another and simply fall in love is what redeems us. This disjointed book finally cohered around the image of a snowflake, isolated and unique. Pamuk asks: “How much can we ever know about love and pain in another's heart?” In the end, we cannot understand other people; we don’t know how to read them. We can only love them.