Snow by Orhan Pamuk
Posted on April 24, 2014
It’s great to discover a writer that you’d like to read lots of, and I’ll add Pamuk to a list that includes V.S. Naipaul, Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro, and, well, quite a few others. I read different books for different reasons, but generally always with a reason in mind. I have been wanting to understand a bit more about life in a modern Arab state: Turkey, in this particular case. I chose this book with one or two others from a ‘best Byzantine’ book list on goodreads.com. That Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for literature certainly helped. What did I learn? Turkey has had a ‘head scarf’ ban for many years. That was surprising. More generally, the degree of factionalism and polarization, secular versus Muslim, Kurds versus nationals, women versus men, in the society was distressing, and the novel is quite bleak. But still compelling.
If you think you might like to read this book, I thought I might give you 9 reasons not to. And then if you can surmount these 9 obstacles, you can be assured that the experience will be truly rewarding. Below I provide a counterpoint against the top review on Goodreads concerning this book. The reviewer, Nathan James, gave the book only one star and found lots of company for his views on the Goodreads web site. My counterpoint gets to the heart of why I read, and why I like the books I like. So, this could be a very good book for you to read, or maybe not.
Nine Reasons I (strongly) disliked this book (by Nathan James on Goodreads)
1. The author made himself a character in his story. I just don’t like it when they do that. I always wonder if they had writers-block and couldn’t invent a fictional character to take the reins.
Response: There are many novels like this one where the writer introduces, not himself, but a fictional narrator. Although this may appear to be the writer himself or herself, it’s still a fictional writer, and a contrivance of the actual writer’s imagination. In Snow, you can’t simply assume that the narrator, who writes in the first person, is Orhan Pamuk. So why do writers use this technique? A fictional narrator, or writer, introduces a level of indirection into the story which can make things interesting. The narrator may be unreliable, inconsistent or untruthful, introducing some optics between the story as written on the page, and the reader’s perception. An unreliable narrator is not an unusual technique, but that’s not the case here. Rather, narrator is a friend and admirer of the protagonist, a poet named Ka. So we have to tease out the deficiencies of Ka ourselves, as they are somewhat hidden in the cracks of the novel, so to speak. With regard to James’ comment, it’s true that meta- narration can be annoying and obtrusive, but you can’t make a blanket statement that it’s always a bad thing. Here, I think it adds an interesting dimension.
2. Snowflake diagram of poetry. I’ll say no more.
Response: This was a curious little thing that gave some insight into the protagonist; the diagram did not necessarily have merit in its own right.
3. The main character is a whiny, infantile, grown man who falls in love with every woman he encounters. As is the narrator whose name happens to be the same as the author, and two of the young men who play huge parts in what little of the plot I cared for.
Response: A common criticism of this book is that the characters are not likable. My only criteria, personally, is that the characters be intellectually compelling and interesting, complicated, with some depth. I don’t have to like the person, in fact, likable people often make for boring and predictable stories.
4. In the same paragraph the female lead character is described as seething in hatred and laughing adoringly at said whiny, infantile grown man. Bad writing, bad translation or intentional?
Response: The world view implied by the novel is unfamiliar to me. I did find it compelling and engaging. I’m not able to assess the mimetic qualities of the book, because I have no personal experience in the Islamic world. I suspect that this critic is fairly ethno-centric in his expectations in reading, and that was an obstacle for many reviewers on goodreads.
5. This story had no cohesion. Things just happened to the main character without much exposition. The exposition that did come was mainly philosophical and seemingly tangential. And if I have to read another sentence about whether a Muslim woman should wear a scarf or not or how beautiful and terrifying snow can be, I will go batty.
Response: The story was about a poet returning to the city of his youth after many years; it was a voyage of discovery, but also one of strangeness and lack of control. The protagonist definitely displayed naivete and misplaced trust. So, yes, much was not explained because it wasn’t known. But across the course of the entire novel a fairly comprehensive picture emerges of the lines of stress in Turkish culture, and the historical reasons for those conflicts.
6. I did not understand the motivations behind most of the characters’ actions. I admit this may be because I’m ignorant to the social intricacies of the Turkish realm. But this book did not help me to care.
Response: The response to number 5 will also do here.
7. As a fellow poet, I hated that the main character wrote 19 poems through out the novel, but the reader never got to read any of them. This point is explained in the story, but it still bugged me.
Response: I didn’t miss them. I think there were a few poems.
8. The author inexplicably tried his hardest to make the novel seem like a biography even though A NOVEL is featured prominently on the cover.
Response: The novel is a linear narrative explained entirely from the viewpoint of the protagonist, a famous poet, and his close acquaintances as unraveled by his friend some years later. Okay, it’s a fictional biography. I’m not sure what the problem is.
9. From this novel I am to presume that every Turkish woman is profoundly beautiful and that Turkish men can only drag themselves after these creatures in the hope of being noticed.
Response: The protagonist’s perspective is a very male-oriented one, and lacking in maturity at times, at least to Western eyes. That does not constitute an endorsement of that viewpoint by the author. In fact, demonstrating a character’s weaknesses obliquely takes a great deal of skill.
Bonus reason: two years later I’m still angry I read this book.
Response: I’m surprised you stuck with the book. There are quite a number of books I’ve stopped one third or even one half way through. Life is too short to read any book for which one feels this level of opprobrium.
Summary: Out of this back and forth, I hope readers of this blog entry obtain a sense of whether they’d like to read this book. I stated my aims at the outset, and the book delivered. But this kind of book is never going to be universally liked.
Perhaps I didn’t tell you enough about the content of the book, so I’ll conclude with a youtube video, one of several posted by students as part of a class project. I liked this one, in particular. Nice work, hope this helps your view count a little.