How does one stay whole, sane, live with integrity amidst contradictions? {Snow by Orhan Pamuk} @ReadNobels

How does one stay whole, sane, live with integrity amidst contradictions?

About Snow by Orhan PamukDread, yearning, identity, intrigue, the lethal chemistry between secular doubt and Islamic fanaticism–these are the elements that Orhan Pamuk anneals in this masterful, disquieting novel. An exiled poet named Ka returns to Turkey and travels to the forlorn city of Kars. His ostensible purpose is to report on a wave of suicides among religious girls forbidden to wear their head-scarves. But Ka is also drawn by his memories of the radiant Ipek, now recently divorced. Amid blanketing snowfall and universal suspicion, Ka finds himself pursued by figures ranging from Ipek’s ex-husband to a charismatic terrorist. A lost gift returns with ecstatic suddenness. A theatrical evening climaxes in a massacre. And finding god may be the prelude to losing everything else. Touching, slyly comic, and humming with cerebral suspense, Snow is of immense relevance to our present moment.

My two cents

So here's a review that has been languishing in draft. It's because I couldn't pick up another book for maybe about a week after reading this book: it gave me such a horrendous book hangover. In the best possible way: it provoked, it triggered so much in me. It got to me, ok, pretty hard.

This book is deceiving; it doesn't look all that thick but it is actually 426 pages, and crack it open and the text is tiny! Dense. I struggled to get past that fact in the beginning but once I made it into the second chapter, I was hooked. It is a pithy novel, like someone poured their life into it, and I doubt that's not far from the truth for Orhan Pamuk.

I loved that this was such a challenging read. I find it disconcerting that reviews are polarized. But I understand where people are coming from - it's hard to get around the fact that this is about a depressingly solitary and misunderstood life in a far flung country whose realities I know little about (although sadly, plenty in the news lately). But surprisingly that's what I loved about it: learning and getting out of my comfort zone, and realizing that despite country, culture, religion, everyone is merely trying to live their lives the best they can.

Collage of Kars, Turkey. 
By Kars Church Of The Apostles 2009.JPGBjørn Christian TørrissenKars Kalesi1.jpgSabri76Kars Panorama.JPGBjørn Christian Tørrissen - Derived from other images, as noted under Author, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Ka's solitary life is cobbled together from the viewpoint of Orhan Pamuk who is Ka's friend. Notice the author insertion here? In that respect, this reminded me of Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco. And like Syjuco's presentation of Philippine history, Pamuk allows us a glimpse Turkey's history, one where religion, politics, and power is complicated and multifaceted. The traditional clashes with the modern; nationalism is at odds with the status quo towards assimilation; Islamic belief, secularism and traditional religion are a contradictory mix; and the Eastern and Western belief systems collide. I wonder: how does one stay whole, sane, and live with integrity amidst these contradictions?

I love how Blue, Kars's resident revolutionary, is able to make sense of the dilemma:
"I refuse to be European, and I won't ape their ways. Im going to live my own history and be no one but myself. I for one believe it's possible to be happy without being a mock European, without becoming their slave. There's a word Europhiles very commonly use when they denigrate our people: to be a true Westerner a person must first become an individual, and then they go on to say that in Turkey, there are no individuals! Well, that's how I see my execution. I am standing up against the Westerners as an individual; it's because I'm an individual that I refuse to imitate them." - p. 314

Yet another dilemma presented is the reality of being a veiled woman in Turkey (sidenote: another book that tackles this on a more personal level is Silk Armour by Claire Sydenham, a book I highly recommend). The contradictions of revolt and freedom, of tradition and constraint is something that women must contend with daily in society to determine their own sense of identity. The rash of suicides of veiled students was an intriguing way of couching this daily struggle.

Poetry throughout, music, theatrical presentations: I reveled in the power of media in informing and agitating people, presenting fact and differing opinions, and affecting change. It highlights the fact that music and the arts is never going to disappear from our lives.

I can't not comment about the obvious theme of snow carried throughout the book -- its coldness and sadness it evokes, the stark white landscapes that it conjures. But also its beauty. Contradictions.

There is so much more to this book that I hate the idea of breaking this review down too much (plus I fear that my not completing this review will end up in my never getting this review up at all!). The most powerful thing for me about this novel is that this got me thinking and asking more questions, of learning about Turkey's multifaceted society and knowing that history shapes the lives of its inhabitants in many ways that we would never imagine possible.


There are certain aspects of this novel that raised a red flag in my mind. The most obvious is that this dense tome is intimidating. I actually read this over an entire month, in little manageable bits. I won't deny that it's heavy reading, but so totally worth it!

Another, the snow theme became academic towards the end. It kind of fell flat for me when I saw the diagrams and I thought the author carried it tad far. I often wonder with works like this if things get lost in translation (because this is a translated work), something I can only speculate about.


Set predominantly in Kars, Turkey, the landscape for this story is a fascinating mix of old and new built upon a history of conflict. Historic accounts and folkloric stories abound in this novel but one needs to read between the lines, do their research, especially if coming in from the cold.

Kars was the capital of the medieval Bagratid Kingdom of Armenia. In the 19th century, it was battled over by the Ottoman and Russian empires, with Russia eventually gaining control. During the First World War, the Ottomans took control of the city in 1918 but relinquished it to the First Republic of Armenia following the Armistice of Mudros. In 1920, Turkish revolutionaries captured captured Kars. The Treaty of Kars was signed in 1921 between the Government of the Grand National Assembly and the Soviet republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, establishing the current north-eastern boundaries of Turkey. Learn more here: Wikipedia - Kars, Turkey


An intimidating and challenging read about the tragically solitary life of a revolutionary in Turkey. Dense, provoking and allowing for introspection, I highly recommend this for those who'd like to learn more about the history and realities of conflict-ridden countries, and those intrigued by Pamuk's ability to encapsulate the dilemma of national self-identity vis-s-vis personal self-identity in novel form.


I read this book as part of the Read the Nobels 2016 Reading Challenge. This is written by Nobel Prize for Literature Laureate Orhan Pamuk.

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© guiltless readingMaira Gall