The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Monday, February 06, 2006


Yesterday afternoon, while waiting for the Steelers to come on, I finally finished Orhan Pamuk's SNOW. The book jacket copy (I had the Faber edition from Britain) said something about Pamuk coming from a place "with a storytelling tradition quite as rich as our own" or something like that, and first of all that's the thing that comes out--Pamuk is eminently confident in what he's doing, and as many critics have mentioned he dips in and out of all sorts of model texts. Boccaccio, the Thousand and One Nights, the dervish folk tradition, etc.

The book is narrated by a first-person narrator, a journalist friend of the protagonist, who is himself part of an old literary tradition (he's piecing together the events in the life of a dead friend), and this is a nice choice--the narrator is mysterious and unobtrusive. The story itself deals with the return to Turkey of "Ka," a great Turkish poet who has fled to Frankfurt several years before. He goes to Kars, a remote town on the eastern border of Turkey, to investigate a rash of suicides among young women who have taken the veil and, as a result, have been kicked out of school; Turkey is, for those who doesn't know, an officially secular Islamic country whose military and political establishment have been historically very hostile to Islamist political movements and Muslim traditions like the veil. While there, he gets embroiled in a complicated set of plots: a long-lost love, a father-and-daughter conflict, a military coup, the last act of a great rural actor, and the persistent conflict between Islamic tradition and the Turkish state. It's melancholy, very atmospheric--the snow plays a big part in the story--and very good. As I read about the protests against the cartoons depicting Mohammed and about the French ban on headscarves in schools, Pamuk's book seems even more timely and, perhaps more importantly, sophisticated as an analysis of the conflicts between the West and the Islamic world as seen by the kinds of Muslims we don't see on the news very often.


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