Books October 2004

Mind the Gap

Turkey is everyone's idea of a "successful" modern Muslim state. A new novel will make you think twice
  • Snow

    By Orhan Pamuk

Well before the fall of 2001 a search was in progress, on the part of Western readers and critics, for a novelist in the Muslim world who could act the part of dragoman, an interpretive guide to the East. In part this was and remains a quest for reassurance. The hope was (and is) that an apparently "answering" voice, attuned to irony and rationality and to the quotidian rather than the supernatural, would pick up the signals sent by self-critical Americans and Europeans and remit them in an intelligible form. Hence the popularity of the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, who seemed in his Cairo café-society mode to be potentially "one of us"—even more so when he had the misfortune to be stabbed in the neck by a demented fundamentalist. There was a much lesser vogue for spikier secular writers, such as the late Abdelrahman Munif, author of the Cities of Salt quintet, and the late Israeli Arab Emil Habibi, whose novel Saeed the Pessoptimist is the favorite narrative of many Palestinians (and who also had the grace to win Israel's national prize for the best writing in Hebrew). In some ways those two were not quite "Muslim" enough for the purposes of authenticity.

Orhan Pamuk, a thoughtful native of Istanbul who lived for three years in New York, has for some time been in contention for the post of mutual or reciprocal fictional interpreter. Turkey is, physically and historically, the "bridge" between East and West, and I have yet to read a Western newspaper report from the country that fails to employ that cheering metaphor. (I cannot be certain how many "Eastern" articles and broadcasts are similarly affirmative.) With his previous novel, My Name Is Red, Pamuk himself became a kind of register of this position, dwelling on the interpenetration of Islamic and Western styles and doing so in a "postmodern" fashion that laid due emphasis on texts, figures, and representations. After 9/11 he was the natural choice for The New York Review of Books, to which he contributed a decent if unoriginal essay that expressed horror at the atrocities while admonishing Westerners not to overlook the wretched of the earth. In Turkey he spoke up for Kurdish rights and once refused a state literary award. Some of his fellow secularists, however, felt that he was too ready to "balance" his views with criticism of the Kemalist and military forces that act as guarantors of Turkey's secularism.

In a Bush speech to the new membership of NATO, delivered in Istanbul last June, one of the President's handlers was astute enough to insert a quotation from Pamuk, to the effect that the finest view of the city was not from its European or its Asian shores but from—yes—the "bridge that unites them." The important thing, as the President went on to intone from Pamuk, "is not the clash of parties, civilizations, cultures, East and West." No; what is important is to recognize "that other peoples in other continents and civilizations" are "exactly like you." De te fabula narratur.

Human beings are of course essentially the same, if not exactly identical. But somehow this evolutionary fact does not prevent clashes of varying intensity from being the norm rather than the exception. "Remember your humanity, and forget the rest," Albert Einstein is supposed to have said. This already questionable call to amnesia translates badly in cultures that regard Einstein himself as a Satanic imp spawned from the hideous loins of Jewish degeneration.

In his new novel Pamuk gives us every reason to suppose that he is far more ambivalent about this facile "bridge-building" stuff than he has so far let on. The plot is complex yet susceptible of summary. Narrated by Pamuk, with the advantages of both foresight and hindsight, it shows an anomic young Turk named Kerim Alakusoglu, a poet with a bad case of literary sterility and sexual drought, as he negotiates a moment of personal and political crisis in the city of Kars, on the Turkish-Armenian frontier. Disliking his given name, the man prefers to go under the acronym formed by his initials: "Ka." Having taken part in the violent and futile Marxist-Leninist student movement that was eventually obliterated by the military coup of 1980, and having followed so many of his ex-comrades into exile in Germany, Ka is a burned-out case. Pretending to seek a journalistic assignment in this remote town, which has recently witnessed an epidemic of suicide by young girls thwarted in their desire to take the Muslim veil, he is in fact magnetized by the possibility of seeing Ipek, the lost flame of his youth. As he arrives, a blizzard isolates the city and almost buries it in snow—for which the Turkish word is kar. One might therefore deploy a cliché and say that the action is frozen in time.

When frozen in the present, the mise-en-scène discloses a community of miserably underemployed people, caught among a ramshackle state machine, a nascent Islamism, and the claims of competing nationalist minorities. A troupe of quasi-Brechtian traveling players is in town, and it enacts a "play within a play," in which the bitter violence of the region is translated with shocking effect directly onto the stage. Drawn into the social and religious conflict, Ka seems to alternate between visions of "snow" in its macrocosmic form—the chilly and hostile masses—and its microcosmic: the individual beauty and uniqueness of each flake. Along the scrutinized axes that every flake manifests he rediscovers his vocation and inspiration as a poet and arranges a cycle of verses. This collection is lost when, on his return to Frankfurt, he is shot down in a street of the red-light district.

In terms of characterization the novel is disappointing, precisely because its figures lack the crystalline integrity of individuals. Ipek, for example, appears on almost every page yet is barely allowed any quality other than her allegedly wondrous beauty. The protagonists speak their lines as Islamists, secularists, conformists, and opportunists. And the author leaves no room for doubt that he finds the Islamists the most persuasive and courageous. This is true in spite of the utter nonsense that he makes them spout. A couple of Muslim boys corner Ka and demand that he answer this question, about a dead girl he never met:

Now we'd like to know if you could do us both a favor. The thing is, we can both accept that Teslime might have been driven to the sin of suicide by the pressures from her parents and the state. It's very painful; Fazil can't stop thinking that the girl he loved committed the sin of suicide. But if Teslime was a secret atheist like the one in the story, if she was one of those unlucky souls who don't even know that they are atheists, or if she committed suicide because she was an atheist, for Fazil this is a catastrophe: It means he was in love with an atheist.

I should caution the potential reader that a great deal of the dialogue is as lengthy and stilted as that, even if in this instance the self-imposed predicaments of the pious, along with their awful self-pitying solipsism, are captured fairly well. So is the superiority/inferiority complex of many provincial Turks—almost masochistic when it comes to detailing their own woes, yet intensely resentful of any "outside" sympathy. Most faithfully rendered, however, is the pervading sense that secularism has been, or is being, rapidly nullified by diminishing returns. The acting troupe is run by a vain old Kemalist mountebank named Sunay Zaim, who once fancied himself an Atatürk look-alike, and his equally decrepit and posturing lady friend. The army and the police use torture as a matter of course to hang on to power. Their few civilian supporters are represented as diseased old ex-Stalinists whose leader—one Z. Demirkol, not further named—could have leapt from the pages of Soviet agitprop. These forces take advantage of the snowstorm to mount a coup in Kars and impose their own arbitrary will, though it is never explained why they do this or how they can hope to get away with it.

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Christopher Hitchens was an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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