He walked through to a hall with pictures of roosters on the walls; in the centre of the hall was a small cock fighting ring. At this moment Ka realised he was in love with İpek. And, sensing that this love would determine the rest of his life, he was filled with dread.
Yesterday, I finished Snow, a novel by Turkish winner of big fancy prizes, Orhan Pamuk. I’ll keep post this more or less spoiler-free, I promise. Pamuk places himself (or a ghost of himself) as the narrator of the book, describing the experiences of a poet friend named Ka in the small Turkish town of Kars. (Incidentally, “kar” is Turkish for snow. You can safely assume there is some snow in the book.) In the novel, Kars has become a focal point for tension between the forces of Turkish secularism and political Islam; after the secularist government banned Islamic headscarves in state schools and universities, a string of Islamic activists known as the headscarf girls killed themselves. When the town is closed off from the outside world by (you guessed it) snow, it becomes a crucible for testing this tension. Snow plays out the struggle between politically expressed religion and modernising secularism in events covering a period of about three days. Plus, Pamuk manages to get through a whole love story in the same time-frame. Positively Shakespearean compression.
Pamuk’s writing reminded me strangely of Haruki Murakami’s–or, to be more precise, of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the only book of his I’ve actually read (though my girlfriend has read a different Pamuk book, and two different Murakami’s, and she doesn’t think my comparison is crazy). I say strangely just because their subjects seem so different–Murakami does fantasy in jazz bars, Pamuk does politics in Mosques. Partly, it’s that both Snow and Wind-Up Bird narrate the pretty-accidental adventures of a solitary and somewhat aimless individual. Along with that, both books also leave pretty much all the other characters flat, breathing only as much as they need to for the protagonist’s story (in the case of Snow, this did leave the decisions of some characters rather more opaque than I would have liked). But doesn’t that describe half the books written in the world? I think the books also share a similar style at a sentence level. Part of me wonders if this might not just be a typical ‘translated’ style. I hope and assume this isn’t the case, as I actually find Pamuk’s (and Murakami’s) writing really lovely at this level. Dreamy, poetic description, with masterfully weighted sentences. Mostly about snow. Plus, some of the magic Murakami works with does feature in the Pamuk world view. The quote at the top illustrates the sort of thing I mean. I loved that paragraph–didn’t have to go to the book to find it, because I’d copied it into my journal when I read it.
Pamuk has another big advantage in winning me over, which he happens to also share with Murakami. He’s writing about a culture I know completely zilch about. Not just Turkey, but also Islam. The political and religious pressures pushing on the novel’s headscarf girls are complex, and quite different to those I might have naively assumed. Male subjugation of women plays a relatively small part in the book. Secularist characters in the book have it as one of their stock arguments against women covering their heads, but in most cases the women seem to be covering up completely of their own accord. The headscarf girls actually go against their families in continuing to wear headscarves. Instead, we hear repeatedly that the headscarf is a symbol of “political Islam.” The whole cultural dynamic is fascinating. It’s also surprising and challenging. I won’t try to rehash all the subtleties here–Pamuk does it better. If you are interested in the interface between Islam and Western ideologies, you should get reading this book.
All the headscarf politics had me wondering about the motivations of Islamic women here in Australia. Those who go completely covered, in a niqab or burqa, I find impossible to see as anything but oppressed. I may be wrong, and there must be individual cases where I would be, but I find it hard to feel any other way. (I worry a little that this may be a racist/Western imperialist way for me to feel, but I don’t think it necessarily is. Happy to be pulled up if you think I’m wrong.) But the women in moderate head coverings, like the hijab, how similar are their motivations to those of the headscarf girls in Snow? I would imagine that a more important ‘political’ factor in Australia might be the feeling of solidarity within a minority group. But I don’t know. Does politics come into it at all? Or is it a purely religious matter, an expression of faith?
Obviously Snow hasn’t quite turned me into an expert on Islam and politics. It did get me thinking though. It is not a perfect book, but it is a good one.