Snow tells the story of the struggle between Islamists and secularists, and a local coup in Kars – a small, snow-covered city in northeastern Turkey. There are quite a number of characters involved, and the plot is complicated, but the protagonist is Ka, a (secular) poet who’s been in exile in Germany and who’s come to Kars to investigate the latest “epidemic” of suicide among head-scarf wearing girls.
I read Snow when I was in the first year of university. I was really impressed with it and I’ll reproduce here two inter-connected sections. (The connection looks a bit trite now but at the time it I found it touching and clever.)
In Kars, Ka befriends Necip, a student at the theology school, a devout Muslim. He’s no radical, has a “pure heart,” looks up to Ka as a writer and wants him to have a look at his poetry; they often have philosophical exchanges. The last thing he would want to be associated with is atheism. (During a discussion with Ka, “‘You’re not saying – God forbid – that I will no longer believe in God, are you?’ said Necip. ‘If that’s what you mean, I’d rather die.’” p. 144) He personally knows one of the girls who’s killed herself and he and his theology school friends hate to think that a good Muslim like her would commit such a sin – the only possible explanation could be that she’d caught the disease of atheism.
Early on in the book, Necip describes for Ka the nightmarish landscape that’s been haunting him – “the place where God doesn’t exist.”
“I see this landscape at night, in darkness, through a window. Outside, there are two white walls, as tall as the walls of a castle. Like two castles back to back! There is only the narrowest passageway between them, which stretches into the distance like a road, and when I look down this road I am overcome with fear. The road where God does not exist is as snowy and muddy as the roads in Kars, but it’s purple! There’s something in the middle of the road that tells me “Stop!” but I still can’t keep myself from looking right down to the end of the road, to the place that this world ends. Right at the end of this world, I can see a tree, one last tree, and it’s bare and leafless. Then, because I’m looking at it, it turns bright red and bursts into flames. It’s at this point that I begin to feel very guilty for being so curious about the land where God does not exist. So, just as suddenly, the red tree turns back to black. So I tell myself I’d better not look again, but then I can’t help it, I do look again, and the tree at the end of the world starts burning red once more. This goes on until morning” (145.)
Later in the evening Necip is shot dead during a coup that takes place during a theatre performance – shot in the forehead and the eye. Ka identifies his body at the morgue, is deeply saddened to see him dead, he kisses his friend’s face on both cheeks.
At the end of the book, years later, the narrator (another character who appears in the second half of the book) goes to Kars to do some research about what happened. Necip’s best friend, Fazıl, takes him to the theology school dormitory, which was raided during the events and was now deserted. In order to pay him his respects, the narrator climbs on Necip’s top bunk in the bunk bed he shared with Fazıl next to a window. Fazıl reminisces on their school years:
“‘On some nights, to make sure we didn’t wake anyone with our whispering, we’d sleep in the same bed, watch the stars and talk’. […] [Fazıl] pointed down to a narrow gap between two buildings: on the left – just beyond the garden – was the side wall of the Agricultural Bank; to the right, another wall, the back of a tall apartment building. The two-metre gap between them was too narrow for a street and so best described as a passageway. A fluorescent tube on the first floor cast a purple light on the muddy ground below. To keep from mistaking the passageway wall for a street, a ‘No entry’ sign had been erected on the middle of the wall. At the end of this passage, which Fazıl said inspired Necip’s vision of the ‘end of the world’, there was a dark and leafless tree. Just as we were looking at it, it suddenly turned red, as if it were on fire. ‘The red light in the sign of the Palace of Light Photo Studio has been broken for seven years now,’ whispered Fazıl. ‘It keeps going on and off, and every time we saw it blink, from Necip’s bed, the oleander tree over there looked like it was on fire. Necip would frequently dream of this vision all night long. He called this vision ‘that world’ and on mornings after sleepless nights, he’d sometimes say, ‘I watched that world all night’” (p. 426).
This novel has a pronounced political dimension, I think Pamuk calls it his only political novel. (And this is the cover Faber designed for a recent edition.) But the love story was more gripping for me, and I couldn’t think about how desperate love could make you as I read about Ka’s relationship with Blue.