Book Review: Snow by Orhan Pamuk
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 2/29/08
This is my first time reading a novel by Orhan Pamuk and given his large reputation, my expectations were high. Reading it, however, left me cold—and that’s not meant to be a pun off the title. It really did. Although the work is itself very “ambitious” for its political agenda, ultimately the narrative is plodding and disjointed with no real purpose for either.
Snow is definitely a “political” novel, and probably too much so—for my main criticism is that the politics outweigh the art. When thinking of other writers who succeeded in writing “political” novels—someone like Steinbeck for example, one actually cares about the characters. In Snow, however, the politics are so heavy handed and at times preachy that readers really won’t care all that much about the people involved. It has been years since reading a Steinbeck novel and yet I can still recall traits from the characters in The Grapes of Wrath, as well as the ways in which Steinbeck brilliantly conveyed isolation and loneliness through his descriptions of dust. In Snow, however, the lead character is pretty much a cipher who wanders around lonely in the snow, writes poems with mediocre, trite titles and lusts after a woman who he has an affair with but then leaves him. The ending is also surprisingly bad, for here it is: “As I watched the last snow covered rooftops and the thin, quivering ribbons of smoke rising from the broken chimneys, I began to cry.”
I almost gagged at the triteness in that last sentence. And would that I only gave a damn enough to cry myself. Unfortunately, I don’t. There are also moments where the description is very banal, and although the metaphor of the Man and Snow is interesting, Pamuk continually bangs on the head his symbolism. Am I saying this is a bad novel? No. Am I disappointed? Yes. Do I believe he can do better? Yes.
Alright, so here it is: the book centers around a poet named Ka who returns to his Turkish town of Kars to uncover the mystery regarding a handful of women who have suicided themselves, as well as connect with his love interest, Ipek. Ka then wanders around in the snow, argues with himself and others the importance of Islam versus the Western World and how it is “Godless”. We’re even given long passages of conversations regarding Western Democracy versus Islam, which after a while begin to feel like one is reading a pamphlet rather than a novel.
And while I may sound harsh, there are actually some great potential metaphors here, such as the moments when Ka feels the happiest—they are actually those when he is locked up in a hotel room with his love interest and despite the snow and the bitterness that goes on outside, indoors he is happy as a peach being with his hot babe as most men would be.
In looking to see what other reviewers thought, the Washington Post said this: “The poems that Ka writes in Kars turn out to be governed by a "deep and mysterious underlying structure" similar to that of a snowflake.” Well, not really. For I get the sense that Ka probably isn’t that good of a poet, if the titles are any indication. And again, with the snowflake—something of beauty, each one is unique, isolated, etc, much like the poet himself… all this is great if only the poet himself was a bit more interesting.
I should also note that in searching online, many readers complained about the translation of Snow, claiming that it was not as good as My Name is Red, one of Pamuk’s other novels. Given the ambitious attempt in this novel, I am slightly inclined to believe such, for I found many passages could have been improved if they were just less pedestrian sounding, and the ending, well, there’s not much one can do about crying but perhaps that scene may have been handled better in his native language or with a better translator. (The edition I read was translated by Maureen Freely).
Although I found the symbolism and politics to be heavy-handed and excessively obvious, the narrative is really the part that suffers in this book because I don’t think many readers would care very much about any of these characters or their motives. When it came time in the book for Ipek to say goodbye to Ka, we are told they never see each other again. Did I care? No. That is not to say I expect to “feel” anything when reading a novel, for Hermann Hesse is one of my favorite writers and I seriously doubt anyone has ever shed a tear over Harry in Steppenwolf. But the difference there is that Hesse’s writing is much deeper and more philosophical than it is in Snow, which thereby makes Hesse’s novel a more interesting read.
In short, I would gladly read another novel of Pamuk—perhaps I will give My Name is Red a try, and I wouldn’t discourage anyone dying to read this novel from giving it a shot. Perhaps the reason I am being so “harsh” (I’m not that harsh) on this book is that I expected more from the characters and the narrative and would have preferred the politics to take a back seat to the story since a novelist’s job is first and foremost to tell a story above all else, politics pro or con notwithstanding. Again, I’ll say it: Snow will very likely leave you cold. And that’s not just a pun.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice website.]
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