Orhan Pamuk
Knopf, 2004
448 pp., $26.00

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by Laurance Wieder

Preemptive Prophecy

In the Turkish city of Kars, schoolgirls forced to abandon their headscarves are killing themselves. A poet who is also a journalist is sent to cover the story.

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Closer to home, and older and deeper, ka is that part of the Egyptian soul where the individual personality resides, and survives death.

In chapter 31 of the novel, competing factions in Kars convene to write a statement which Ka is supposed to get published in Germany. Only appearance in the Western press will make the people of Kars real—not for the West, perhaps not even for Istanbul, but most certainly for themselves. One high school student wants the statement to read: "We're not stupid, we're just poor." It's the cry of the overlooked, the voice of one who, could he only prove he exists, might survive life.

One difference between political life and the arts is that a successful politics cannot leave everybody on the other side dead. It has to seek accommodation. That each side hates all others is no wonder. But to be social means one's willing to live and let live, to live in suspense. Only plays and novels and movies have to end in resolution.

In an essay, "The Anger of the Damned," which appeared in the November 1, 2001 issue of the New York Review of Books, Pamuk wrote about his desperate solitude as he sat in an Istanbul coffee house and watched the World Trade Center towers collapse. He had lived in New York, walked the downtown streets, met with people in the towers. Now, leaving the coffee house, Pamuk met an old man, a neighbor who had not yet seen the horror on tv but had heard the news. "Sir," Pamuk's neighbor said, " … they have bombed America. They did the right thing."

Pamuk was three months short of completing Snow when this voice of higher resentment led him to wonder if, in turn, the American response would include a righteous nationalistic rage, fueled by which "some will find it easy to speak words that might lead to the slaughter of other innocent people. In view of this," Pamuk allowed, "one wants to say something."

He already had. The novel Snow now reads like a kind of preemptive prophecy. It's filled with the voices of those beyond the reach of glamor, magic, or aestheticism, voices that cluster around a novelist's sublime poet and his imaginary poems. The novelist also lays the only onstage murders at the feet of the two men in Kars "who have read T.S. Eliot." Remember the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen's unfortunate "review" in which he admired the orchestration of the WTC attacks? The idea's to be only half in love with easeful death.

Laurance Wieder is the author most recently of Words to God's Music: A New Book of Psalms (Eerdmans).

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