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Friday, December 02, 2005



(Snow by Orhan Pamuk. Translated from Turkish by Maureen Freely. Vintage Books. 2004. Pages 425. Price US $14.95)

Orhan Pamuk is a literary genius, a phenomenon, actually. His books have won several awards. His sixth novel "My Name is Red" walked away with the 2003 Impac Dublin Literary Award, his latest book 'Snow' walked away with the prestigious French Foreign Literature Prize - the Prix Medicis this year. That happens to be yet another useful addition to a long, long list of richly deserved awards. In fact, the New York Times picked it as their 'Best Book of the Year.'

It's a pity I discovered Pamuk's work so late. It was a column in Newsweek, brilliantly written in true Pamuk style that triggered my interest. 'Snow' happened to be my first Pamuk experience, one which marks the deepening of my love of all things Turkish - including the charming evil eye.

Though at the outset, let me admit, 'Snow' is not for the faint-hearted. That's something the novelist clearly states at the start of the book itself. Quoting Stendhal from 'The Charterhouse of Parma' he writes, "We are about to speak of very ugly matters" and politics just happens to be one of them. With that begins an emotionally charged tale with flashes of black comedy that's bound to appeal to readers universally.

This work of fiction, that more often than not, reads like fact turns on the conflict between the forces of 'Westernisation' and the 'Islamists'. It all starts with the soul-searching of a washed up poet, Ka. He returns to Kars, an impoverished city in Anatolia just as a severe snowstorm sets in. This journey marks the beginning of a mystifying journey into the heart and soul of Turkey.

And what a journey it is. The year is 1992 and Ka, the poet returns to the land he grew up in after a long exile in Frankfurt. He makes the journey to the desolate, snow-bound town for two reasons: to track a former lover and to write an investigative newspaper article about the growing number of suicides among young women who have chosen to wear the headscarf.

The narrative unravels slowly, so if you are looking for an action packed adventure, I can tell you it's not for you. For if you are one for metaphors, that swirl through the turbulence of this little town of Turkey, this would be just the book for you.

That's also because at one level, while the book is seemingly obsessed with Ka and Kars, at a deeper level it deal with some of the themes that are constantly addressed in not just Turkey but the broader Middle East as well. There is the way of governance pitting itself against the rise of secular forces, the voice of the youth as opposed to that of the old, the oppressor and the oppressed, the authorities and the uninhibited power that they wield and beyond all of that a look at a way of life that many of us just haven't known before.

It is not just a window to a new land, in a bold voice, rather 'Snow' is above everything a window to the human soul. It scores on both content and style. Little wonder then that, none other than the celebrated Canadian writer Margaret Atwood has called it "essential reading for our times." Need I say more?