Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Book Review: Snow

I just finished the Nobel Prize winning novel from Turkey, Snow, by Orhan Panuk. I must say I was underwhelmed, and I struggled to get through it. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t like it much either. The story is about a fictional poet named Ka, who returns to Turkey after a long political exile in Germany. He travels to the remote city of Kars to do some reporting and track down a female college acquaintance, the recently divorced Ipek. He soon finds himself in the midst of a military coup. A nationalist actor with political aspirations has joined forces with an Army officer and a few leftist rebels and taken over the city in an attempt to forcibly extinguish the militant Islamists in the region. Politically charged violence and poverty are such common occurrences in Kars, the majority of the populace simply shrug off the newest development, preferring to stay indoors and watch the telenovelas.
The political aspect of Snow was the most interesting to me. I know almost nothing about Turkey and found the glimpses of history interesting. Overall, the book paints a very depressing picture. Islamic extremists want nothing more than to kill all of the non-believers, which is a difficult viewpoint for me to understand. Hate your oppressors, sure. Hate those who do you harm, understandable. But hating everyone who does not share your religious beliefs, to the extent that killing them is nothing to you? This I have trouble comprehending. The most poignant chapter in the book is a transcript of a conversation between the headmaster of a local school and his assassin, who kills him for enforcing a government policy that bans Muslim girls from wearing head scarves to school. The determination of the killer, his cold demeanor and lack of rationality as he questions and kills the old man are absolutely frightening. As a result of the militant Islamic threat, the secular government is backed into a corner, and adopts a “get them before they get us” mentality, and the ethical lines blur as they, in turn, resort to torture, spying, and murder of their enemies, both real and perceived. See what I mean about depressing? Another striking aspect of the book that is the massive inferiority complex all of the characters seem to have: they claim to hate the West (mostly referring to Europe), yet they all seem obsessed with what Europe thinks of them. At one point, Ka collects various statements to send to be published in Germany. “Tell them Turks are independent thinkers! Tell them we don’t want to be like them! We’re not stupid, we’re just poor,” they clamor. The thing is, the West doesn’t think they are poor or stupid, the West just doesn’t think about them.
So, here’s what I didn’t like about the book: The love story was distracting and ridiculous. Beautiful Ipek and her beautiful sister are never once described without mentioning their beauty (so beautiful that Ka sometimes can’t decide which one he’s in love with!) and come across as idealized male fantasies and not real people. In the past, I have been surprised by how well some male authors can craft their female characters (Memoirs of a Geisha and Never Let Me Go are two examples of novels that do this wonderfully), but Snow is perhaps the worst example of a male writing a female I have ever read. This could be a translation effect, since the book was originally written in Turkish. The plot gets jumbled in places- for example, Ka originally goes to Kars to report on a recent rash of suicides, and the early part of the novel (and the blurb on the back cover) devote a lot of page space to this phenomenon, but it is never really mentioned again.
Overall, Snow was thought-provoking and depressing, but not very well written or organized.

Anyone read anything good lately? I need a new book now that I’ve finally finished this one.

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