Monday, February 12, 2007

Snow, by Orhan Pamuk

As a man significantly shaped by a Great Books program, this book gives me welcome challenge. In the U.S. when we say "great books" we mean the greatest Western books. But Mr. Pamuk blurs the geographic, domestic, artistic, religious, and political lines between the West and the East, embodied by a westernizing Turkey, and particularly Istanbul.

I always come to books with a question of literature's worth. No book can answer that question conclusively, and literature itself can not answer that question conclusively. But sometimes, I read a book that has a good bit to say to the question, and for the few seconds that I'm reading that book I remember how the endeavor of literature is a shining endeavor.

Snow brought me to intersections of emotional experience with intellectual objectification: those places where knowing all the reasons for events and all the brilliant parallelisms does not protect you from the chaos of emotion in them. I take it that the lyrics of most popular music are vague and fragmented, for one, because often reason and intellectual processing leaves us no room for raw emotional experience. Pamuk creates an emotional atmosphere in his novel compelling enough to give him perfect freedom in wearing all the intellectual elements of his novel on the novel's articulated sleaves.

And the intellectual elements of the novel are many: the mystery of Islam's great hate for the West, a passionate desire to be indifferent; the process of the East trying to become Western, the trying itself counter-intuitively causing failure to truly emulate; an artist's place in a political world with two sides and seemingly no level ground in between to stay put on; the phenomenon of proximity and how that causes one entity to be influenced by another.

Snow brings you into a small Turkish town where the unemployed men sit around in tea houses. The newspapers write the news before it happens in order to have the news available in print on the day of. The place has lived through long struggles between political Islamists, Westernizing secularists, Kurds, and everyone in between. Everyone with their own ideas about what is West and what is East, where salvation lies, and how to get there. In the middle of these ideals beats a pulse of longing for simple domestic happiness and belonging, and a fervor for some sort of identity that can be claimed without feeling shame from it.

This is a great book. Written by a man from Istanbul. A book can not convey the East to the West, but this book creates a place thick with questions that can dissect us if we let them, and an emotional solidarity that will grant us time to figure out our own pieces a little bit, and then a little bit, and then a little bit better.


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