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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Embittered, Muhtar sought solace from his sheikh. But the old saint, he lamented, "knew nothing of modern poetry, RenÉ Char, the broken sentence, MallarmÉ, Joubert, the silence of an empty line.

"This undermined my confidence in my sheikh," Muhtar continued. "After all, he hadn't been offering me anything new for some time, just Keep your heart clean, and God's love will deliver you from oppression and eight or ten other lines like that."

For her part, Ipek, when queried about the suicides, had said, "The men give themselves to religion, and the women kill themselves."

And Blue, a celebrity political Islamist hiding in Kars, who came to Kars to stop the suicide epidemic, suddenly pulls his interviewer, Ka, close to him, kisses him on both cheeks and says: "You are a modern-day dervish. You've withdrawn from the world to devote yourself to poetry. You would never be the pawn of those who would denigrate innocent Muslims."

At the beginning of his story, while the bus to Kars pushes on through the blizzard, Pamuk quotes a line from one of Ka's early poems: "It snows only once in our dreams." This only-onceness would be a trope on the scientist's rule that every snowflake has six sides and crystalline structure, and every snowflake is unique. It's a simple leap from snowflake to individual soul, though the snowflake melts and soul does not; the point of the snowflake-to-poem correlation would be the unique utterance inside the recognized shape. Unlike the snowflake, the poem does not melt; unlike the soul, the poem is material, it is recorded.

The Novelist Orhan, sifting through the notebooks and effects Ka left in the four years following his journey to Kars, is able to reconstruct in vivid detail the circumstances and perhaps even the stimuli of Ka's inspirations, 19 in all, in a fashion that's to me entirely convincing. Orhan describes his novelistic sources, his retracing Ka's steps and talking to all the surviving participants who crossed paths with Ka in those sublime days. Orhan discovers a map drawn in one of the many notebooks of exegesis that Ka filled while refining and arranging his book of poems, Snow. The map is a snowflake: three intersecting axes, with three poems each at six ends, and one poem in the middle.

It's possible, reading from the list of Ka's poems in the order he wrote them at the back of the book, to pinpoint the page in the novel where each poem occurred. Only the poems themselves, set down in the poet's green notebook, are missing.

Prose isn't a happy environment for poetry, anyway. For every successful biography of a poet—like, say, Richard Holmes' Shelley: The Pursuit— there are hundreds of labored exegeses and self-serving interpreters; Murasaki's poems in the Tale of Genji are social occasions, not motives; the Vita Nuova succeeds as a Tale of Poetry, but Orhan Pamuk is not trying to convince us that Ka is Dante. Subjected to the winds of taste, the poems in Ka's Snow would melt.

The absent poems are the novelist's pretext, not the poet's. These poems, like the region where they come from and like the white space in MallarmÉ, draw strength and reality from their absence. All implication, with no information to disturb the void.

And so, while Pamuk's novel has a sociability and what I might call a kind of practical humor that puts one foot firmly on the journalistic earth, the book's intimations of meaning and respect for the human heart point toward the empty shelf with the dust outline where the Grecian Urn once stood. Snow can be read like a dream, or a dream foretold.

Take the single syllable, Ka. The modernist says, "K," that's Kafka's Joseph K. Even more, Snow's thwarted guilt and oppression suggest The Trial and The Castle; Ka's goofy, inept, and self-defeating tango with the possible marks him as an Islamic soulmate of Kafka in his Letters to Milena, advancing toward and recoiling from the prospect of human happiness. There's hope, the sage of Prague observed, but not for us.

KA, as his name appears in a typo in the Border City News, can be read as the initials of Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish secular republic. A British Imperial legacy like Turkey's national borders, Ka is also the python (a python's a Greek prophet) from Kipling's Jungle Books.

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