By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
As a story, Orhan Pamuk's Snow is one of the most engrossing books I've read in a really long time. Though there are hundreds of facets to this novel that I would like to discuss, I feel I only have time to write about one with any degree of seriousness.
Snow's most powerful passages often come when two or more characters are arguing about the way they are perceived by the West. They are constantly feeling as though they are in a passive position, members of the audience as opposed to actors on the world stage. Set in the 1990's in Kars, a remote city in eastern Turkey rife with unemployment, poverty and violence, this comes to be the subject of most of the conversations that take place between the city's more traditional population and Ka, the protagonist who has returned to Turkey after spending twelve years in political exile in Germany. Ka appears to have returned to Turkey to find himself, but the people of Kars view him as an agent of the West, the State, atheism or all three at once. What I found so intriguing about these passages is that they represent the exact same antagonisms that exist between urban and rural portions of this country (though the imperial forces at play here are not the West, but, rather, Washington, Europe or cosmopolitanism in general).
This feeling of impotence is perhaps most acute in the character Blue, a charismatic and radical Islamist. However, he is also quick to recognize his own insecurity as the reason behind his resentment for the West. As he states during his first meeting with Ka, "Most of the time it's not the Europeans who belittle us. What happens when we look at them is that we belittle ourselves." When his rhetoric becomes more impassioned and defiant, he betrays what is ultimately his powerlessness.
Such sentiments seem to be common for those who feel as though they live in the purlieus, whether in eastern Anatolia or rural Idaho. It is the feeling that the centers of power and wealth wish to promote a secular New World Order that deprives the individual of self-determination while preaching inclusiveness. Individuals in such a position feel that any attempt to preserve their traditions and, consequently, their identities, is viewed as backwards and repressive by the monolithic West.
This on-going battle, which Pamuk intimates that most Westerners are oblivious to, is not the easily digestible democracy v. tyranny, good v. evil, modern v. archaic that it is so often characterized as being. From the perspective of the residents of Kars, it seems as though it is more a desperate attempt to retain some type of control over one's life in the face of a modernizing world of which they are not a part, of which they perhaps cannot be a part. It is due to Pamuk's abilities to universalize this plight that he is a literary icon not only for Turkey, but for the world.