“Not only an engrossing feat of tale-spinning, but essential reading for our times.” —Margaret Atwood, The New York Times Book Review
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about Orhan Pamuk’s brilliant novel Snow, which is at once a political thriller, a romance, and an examination of the profound religious and political dilemmas that beset the people of modern Turkey.
After twelve years of political exile in Germany, the Turkish poet Ka returns to his native Istanbul for his mother’s funeral. There he is asked by a friend at a newspaper to travel to the remote Anatolian town of Kars to report on the municipal elections, as well as on a disturbing series of suicides by women who have been forbidden by the secular government to wear their head scarves at school. He arrives in Kars in the midst of a snowstorm that lasts for three days, cutting the town off from the greater world, and is quickly drawn into an intricate set of circumstances. He meets his beautiful friend Ipek, who has recently separated from her husband, and quickly falls in love with her. He witnesses an assassination, finds himself discussing the possible existence of God with an idealistic student from the Islamic high school, is taken to a meeting with a reputed Islamic terrorist and, after four years without writing a single poem, is visited with a series of poems that arrive fully formed in his mind. While the reason for the women’s suicides remains a mystery, Ka is caught up in a theatrically staged military coup intended to punish the political Islamists whose power is on the rise in Kars. Balancing empathy and wit, irony and pathos, Snow illuminates the profound difficulties and contradictions of life in lands like Turkey, where western-style democracy and Islamic fundamentalism are dangerously at odds. Snow is a riveting and important work by one of contemporary fiction’s most brilliant practitioners.
Almost immediately after the novel opens, the narrator speaks in first person directly to the reader and concludes his interjection of Ka’s “biographical details” with the statement: “I don’t wish to deceive you. I’m an old friend of Ka’s, and I begin this story knowing everything that will happen to him during his time in Kars” [p. 5]. Later, during his report of Ka’s conversation with Necip, the narrator says of Necip, “With a childishness that amazed Ka, he opened his large green eyes, one of which would be shattered in fifty-one minutes” [p. 134]. With these direct statements of the narrator’s foreknowledge, what happens to the fictional conventions of plot and suspense? How does learning that the narrator’s name is Orhan, and that he’s written something called The Black Book [p. 425], affect the reader’s reception of the story?
Ka’s mood at the beginning of the story is dreamlike and nostalgic: “As slowly and silently as the snow in a dream, the traveler fell into a long-desired, long-awaited reverie; cleansed by memories of innocence and childhood, he succumbed to optimism and dared to believe himself at home in this world” [p. 4]. Does Ka remain in this state of optimism and seeming innocence throughout his stay in Kars? As an exile, he is moved by a sense of returning home; does he make a mistake by believing himself at home enough to become involved in the affairs of Kars?
While Ka and Ipek are having coffee in the New Life Pastry Shop, they witness the murder of the director of the Institute of Education. Discuss the conversation between the Institute director and the young man who has been sent to assassinate him [pp. 38–48]. What are the elements that make the scene so effective?
The brief history of Kars on pages 19–21 describes a place at the crossroads of “two empires now defunct,” which has seen “endless wars, rebellions, massacres, and atrocity.” Despite Kemal Atatürk’s westernizing ideology (reinforced brutally by the military), Kars is sunk in poverty and hopelessness; its bourgeoisie has fled. Muhtar says, “The city of Kars and the people in it—it was as if they weren’t real. Everyone wanted to die or to leave. . . . It was as if I’d been erased from history, banished from civilization” [p. 53]. How has the town’s history shaped its inhabitants’ ideas about themselves and their future?
Ka’s conversations with Muhtar, Blue, the boys from the religious high school, Sheikh Efendi, and Kadife [chapters 6, 8, 9, 11,13] explore the gap between traditional Islam and Western secularism. How do these conversations affect Ka’s sense of his spiritual condition? How strongly does he need to identify himself as a secular intellectual, and why is the possibility of his own belief in God, which he admits to, so unsettling to him?
Karl Marx said, “Hegel remarks somewhere that history tends to repeat itself. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce” [The Eighteenth Brumiare of Louis Bonaparte]. In the novel’s most farcical and tragic moments, theatrical impresario Sunay Zaim and his allies the military police stage their own intervention in the history of Kars. Does Pamuk, in these episodes so central to the story, seem to share Marx’s pessimism?
Blue tells a story from the ancient epic Shehname: “Once upon a time, millions of people knew it by heart. . . . But now, because we’ve fallen under the spell of the West, we’ve forgotten our own stories” [p. 78]. What does he imply when he asks Ka, “Is this story so beautiful that a man could kill for it?” [p. 79]
At least three different perspectives are given on the suicide girls. The deputy governor tells Ka, “What is certain is that these girls were driven to suicide because they were extremely unhappy. . . . But if unhappiness were a genuine reason for suicide, half the women in Turkey would be killing themselves” [p. 14]; Ipek says, “The men give themselves to religion, and the women kill themselves” [p. 35]. Kadife argues that women commit suicide to save their pride [p. 112]. Does the novel provide an answer to the mystery of why women are killing themselves?
Speaking with Muhtar, Ka says, “If I were an author and Ka were a character in a book, I’d say, ‘Snow reminds Ka of God!’ But I’m not sure it would be accurate. What brings me close to God is the silence of snow” [p. 60]. Why does the snow make Ka think of God? How do Ka’s thoughts about his own religious beliefs change throughout the novel?
In getting involved with the various factions in Kars, does Ka act on his own behalf, or as the pawn of others? Is he actually, and knowingly, a double agent? As the plot progresses and Ka is moving back and forth between rival groups, what becomes most confusing? Does the reader’s experience mirror Ka’s spiritual and moral bewilderment?
When he travels to Kars, Ka enters another world: “Raised in Istanbul amid the middle-class comforts of Nisantas . . . Ka knew nothing of poverty; it was something beyond the house, in another world” [p. 18]. In the meeting at the Hotel Asia, a Kurdish boy says, “I’ve always dreamed of the day when I’d have a chance to share my ideas with the world. . . . All I’d want them to print in that Frankfurt paper is this: We’re not stupid, we’re just poor! And we have a right to want to insist on this distinction” [p. 275]. Later, Orhan asks, “How much can we ever know about love and pain in another’s heart? How much can we hope to understand those who have suffered deeper anguish, greater deprivation, and more crushing disappointments than we ourselves have known?” [p. 259] Why are these statements so central to the problems of empathy and ethics presented in the novel?
Does the epigraph from Dostoevsky—“Well then, eliminate the people, curtail them, force them to be silent. Because the European enlightenment is more important than people”—sum up the West’s arrogant approach to fundamentalist political movements? How is it relevant to the events in Kars?
Everyone in Kars watches television constantly; they even use the television to watch the coup as it takes place just outside their doors. Given the deliberately theatrical nature of the coup, the uncertainty as to whether the soldiers’ bullets are real, and Sunay’s death onstage during the second performance, what does Pamuk suggest about the relationship between history and fiction, reality and illusion?
Does Ipek love Ka, or does she still love Blue? Does she betray Ka by not going to Frankfurt with him [pp. 388–90]? In an unsent letter, Ka wrote to Ipek, “I carry the scars of my unbearable suffering on every inch of my body. Sometimes I think it’s not just you I’ve lost, but that I’ve lost everything in the world” [p. 260]. Was it foolish of Ka to think that he would be able to have the happiness that love provides? Why does Ipek decide not to go to Germany with him?
“Once a six-pronged snowflake crystallizes, it takes between eight and ten minutes for it to fall through the sky, lose its original shape, and vanish. . . . Ka decided that snowflakes have much in common with people. It was a snowflake that inspired ‘I, Ka’” [pp. 375–76]. The poems that Ka writes in his green notebook while in Kars (kar means “snow”) align with the points on a snowflake. These poems, however, are never recorded in the novel. How seriously should a reader take Ka’s efforts as a poet? What is the significance of the fact that the poems are not available to the reader, but instead we have a novel called Snow?
In several of his novels, Pamuk has created characters who are doubles or alter egos. Here he gives us Ka and the narrator as well as Necip and Fazil. Late in the story, the narrator follows Ka’s trail on a reading tour through various German cities; he wished “to do exactly as Ka had done on his own tour seven weeks earlier. . . . I would wander through the cold empty city and pretend I was Ka walking the same streets to escape the painful memories of Ipek ” [p. 378–379]. Upon following Ka’s trail to Kars, he notes, “I shouldn’t want my readers to imagine that I was trying to become his posthumous shadow” [p. 380]. What do these statements imply?
How is Kadife different from her sister Ipek ? What motivates her to go onstage and bare her head in Sunay’s play? Is she a devout Muslim, or is wearing the headscarf simply a costume necessary for her love affair with Blue?
Reexamine Necip’s story [pp. 104–7] once you’ve reached the end of the novel. Has Necip’s tale foreseen the revelations about the narrator and his love for Ipek, as well as Fazil’s marriage to Kadife? How does Necip live on after his death? How does Ka?
Orhan Pamuk Reader’s Companion
Orhan Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, the first Turkish author to receive the award. He is the overall bestselling author in his homeland and his books have been published in more than fifty languages. This guide is designed to help you explore Pamuk’s world and writings, whether your group chooses to read all of his works or to focus on his acclaimed novels or engaging nonfiction titles.
Born in Istanbul in 1952, Pamuk grew up in a well-to-do, Western-oriented family. As a child he attended private schools and dreamed of becoming an artist. He began his studies at Istanbul Technical University in architecture, but at the age of twenty-two switched to journalism, taking the first step in his career as a writer. Pamuk’s first novel, Cevdet Bey and His Sons, the story of three generations of a Turkish family, was published in Turkey in 1982. The White Castle, the first of his novels to be translated into English, takes place in seventeenth-century Constantinople (as Istanbul was then called) and explores the meeting between East and West, a theme that recurs throughout Pamuk’s writing career. The White Castle also introduced a deeper, more personal interest, one that imbues in his works of fiction and nonfiction alike: the relationship between dreams and reality, memory and imagination.
In his early years as a writer, Pamuk spent five years in residence at Columbia University, where he now holds a position as a visiting professor. In the autobiographical profile he wrote for the Nobel Prize committee, Pamuk reflected on his time as a visiting scholar at Columbia and the influence that had on his evolution as a writer: “I was thirty-three years old . . . and asking myself hard questions about who I was, and about my history. . . . During my time in New York, my longing for Istanbul mixed with my fascination for the wonders of Ottoman, Persian, Arab, and Islamic culture” (copyright © The Nobel Foundation, 2006). For much of those five years, Pamuk devoted himself to writing The Black Book, a strikingly original novel that weaves multiple voices and beguiling stories about Istanbul, past and present, into a modern-day detective story.
In his next novel, The New Life, Pamuk once again transformed the conventions of mystery into an intellectual adventure, creating a world in which a mysterious book, a fleeting romance, and conspiracies real and imagined wreak havoc on a university student’s life and his sense of identity. Set in the sixteenth century, My Name Is Red revisits Turkey’s rich and complex Ottoman past in a fascinating tale about the impact of Western art and aesthetics on an Islamic society that stifled individual creativity and strictly prohibited the creation of representational paintings.
As Pamuk’s fame grew throughout the 1990s, journalists in Turkey and abroad looked to him for elucidation on the political situation in his homeland and its relations with the West. Troubled by the changes occurring in Turkey, Pamuk wrote Snow, his first overtly political novel. A thought-provoking, witty, and balanced portrait of the rise of political Islamism, Snow was widely read and discussed in Turkey and became an international bestseller. The Museum of Innocence, Pamuk’s newest work of fiction, examines the nature of romantic attachment and the mysterious allure of collecting as it traces a wealthy man’s lifetime obsession with the lower-class woman he had loved and abandoned as a young man.
Collected essays, articles, and autobiographical sketches
Now in his late fifties, Orhan Pamuk lives in Istanbul in the same apartment building he grew up in. His deep attachment to the city is beautifully captured in Istanbul: Memories and the City, a combination of childhood memoir and journey into Istanbul life through his own eyes and those of painters and writers (including European visitors like the German artist Antoine-Ignace Melling and the French writers Gérard de Nerval and Gustave Flaubert); enhanced with photographs, it illuminates the personal and artistic influences on his work. Other Colors showcases the range and depth of Pamuk’s interests. There are short, lyrical pieces about his personal life collected under the apt and intriguing title “Living and Worrying”; critical essays on literary figures such as Dostoevsky, Camus, Nabokov, Vargas Llosa, and Rushdie, along with assessments of several of his own novels; and commentaries on a wide variety of political and cultural matters. A captivating collection, Other Colors provides fresh insights into the mind and imagination of one of today’s most notable writers.
A political drama and the recognition of Pamuk’s contributions to literature
In an interview with a Swiss newspaper in February 2005, Pamuk denounced the Ottoman massacre of millions Armenians in 1915 and the slaughter of thirty thousand Kurds in Turkey during the 1990s. His comments caused a furor in Turkey: several newspapers launched campaigns against him and he was officially charged with the crime of “publicly denigrating Turkish identity.” Facing death threats, Pamuk moved abroad. He returned to face a trial and the possibility of three years of imprisonment; the charges were dropped on a technicality in January 2006. The incident reverberated internationally, highlighting the conflict between anti-European nationalism in Turkey and the government’s campaign to join the European Union. It exposed, as well, the simmering distrust of—and sometimes blatant hostility toward—Muslim populations in the United States and Europe.
In awarding Orhan Pamuk the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, the Swedish Academy said, “In the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city, [Pamuk] has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.” Pamuk’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “My Father’s Suitcase” (Other Colors, pages 403–17), offers a more personal explanation of why he became a writer and what he hopes to accomplish:
It was only by writing books that I came to a fuller understanding of the problems of authenticity (as in My Name Is Red and The Black Book) and the problems of life on the periphery (as in Snow and Istanbul). For me, to be a writer is to acknowledge the secret wounds that we carry inside us. . . . My confidence comes from the belief that all human beings resemble one other, that others carry wounds like mine—that they will therefore understand. All true literature rises from this childish, hopeful certainty that all people resemble one another.
1. Have Pamuk’s books changed your perceptions of Turkey? What insights do they offer into the country’s history and place in the world?
2. Have his books given you a deeper understanding of the Muslim world? Have they altered your opinion about the current situation in the Middle East and other parts of the world where Islam is the dominant religion? Have you become more or less sympathetic?
3. Pamuk’s novels range over a wide span of time, from the sixteenth century (My Name Is Red) to the present day (Snow). Compare your reactions to the historical novels and the contemporary works. Which do you prefer and why?
4. In these books what impact do the tensions between Eastern and Western beliefs and customs have on individual lives, on the relations between classes and ethnic groups, or on political debates? What competing ideologies (or ways of thinking) affect the characters’ behavior and emotional responses? Consider the ethical, religious, and social dilemmas individuals face and how they resolve them.
5. Snow is prefaced by epigraphs from Robert Browning, Stendahl, Dostoevsky, and Joseph Conrad. How does each of them apply not only to Snow, but also to the other Pamuk books you have read? Citing specific passages, how would you characterize the author’s feelings about Western attitudes toward the Muslim world?
6. What role do perceptions—or misperceptions—about Islamic law and religious customs play in the assumptions Westerners make about Muslims? Are there current controversies in the United States or Europe that support your view?
7. Do Pamuk’s depictions of the relationships between men and women conform to your impressions of romance, marriage, and family life in a Muslim society? How are women presented in the historical novels? In what ways do the women in the novels set in the present (or in the recent past) embody both traditional female roles and the new opportunities they have to express their opinions and act on their beliefs?
8. Istanbul opens with an essay about Pamuk’s feelings as a child that “somewhere in the streets of Istanbul . . . there lived another Orhan so much like me that he could pass for my own twin, even my double” (page 3). Many reviewers, including John Updike, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, and Charles McGrath, have written about what McGrath calls “an enduring Pamuk preoccupation: the idea of doubleness or split identity” (New York Times, October 13, 2006). Can you find examples of doubleness in the books you have read, and if so, what do these add to the story? What insights do they reveal about Pamuk’s own sense of identity?
9. What techniques does Pamuk use to bring his characters, real and fictional, to life? How do his descriptions of settings, manners, and other everyday details enhance the portraits he creates? What use does he make of humor, exaggeration, and other stylistic flourishes in his depictions of particular situations, conversations, musings, and arguments?
10. Pamuk employs many of the literary devices associated with postmodern and experimental fiction. (McGrath, for example, notes his use of “narratives within narratives, texts that come alive, labyrinths of signs and symbols . . .”). In what ways do his books echo Italo Calvino’s allegorical fantasies? What do they share with the writings of Jorge Luis Borges and other magical realists? What aspects of his literary style can be traced to earlier masters of innovative fiction like Kafka and Nabokov?
11. In an essay on the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa in Other Colors, Pamuk writes, “It is clear . . . that there is a sort of narrative novel that is particular to the countries of the Third World. Its originality has less to do with the writer’s location than with the fact that he knows he is writing far from the world’s literary centers and he feels this distance inside himself” (page 168). Discuss how this manifests itself in Pamuk’s own works, as well as the works of Vargas Llosa and other authors writing from the Third World. Are there creative advantages to living and writing “far from the world’s literary centers”?
12. Pamuk writes in Istanbul of authors who left their homelands—Conrad, Nabokov, Naipaul: “Their imaginations were fed by exile, a nourishment drawn not through roots, but through rootlessness” (page 6). If you have read the works of these writers, or other authors in exile, do you agree that their books reflect—in style or in content—the effects of living in a new, foreign culture? To what extent is Pamuk’s writing rooted in the storytelling traditions of Eastern cultures? In what ways does it show the influence of his early exposure to Western literature, his participation in international literary circles, and his longtime association with American academia?
13. Despite the many differences between the societies Pamuk describes and our own, why do his characters and their behavior resonant with contemporary English-speaking readers? Are there aspects of Turkish mores that make it difficult to sympathize or engage with the characters in the novels? Do these factors also influence your reactions to his autobiographical pieces, literary criticism, and cultural observations in both Other Colors and Istanbul?
14. How does Pamuk’s personal history, as well as the plots of some novels, mirror the complicated history of Turkey? Consider such topics as: the decline and dissolution of the once powerful Ottoman Empire; the sweeping changes initiated by Atatürk in the 1920s; the conflicting desires to preserve Turkey’s distinctive heritage and to become more active in the global community; and the rise of fundamentalist Islam throughout Middle East today.
15. In discussing the importance of novels, Pamuk says, “Modern societies, tribes, and nations do their deepest thinking about themselves by reading novels; through reading novels, they are able to argue about who they are” (Other Colors, page 233). Do you agree? What can novels provide that nonfiction books and other media do not?
Suggestions for further reading
Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy; Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions; Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities; Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss; Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground; Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum; Franz Kafka, The Castle; James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Milan Kundera, Immortality; Naguib Mahfouz, The Cairo Trilogy; Gabriel García Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera; Vladimir Nabokov, Ada; V. S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River; Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past
Pamuk’s works are available in Vintage paperback editions (listed here in order of their first translation into English): The White Castle; The New Life; My Name Is Red; The Black Book; Snow; Istanbul; Other Colors; The Museum of Innocence
(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)
Orhan Pamuk is the author of seven novels and the recipient of major Turkish and international literary awards. His last novel, My Name Is Red, won the 2003 IMPAC Dublin Award. He is one of Europe’s most prominent novelists, and his work has been translated into more than thirty languages. He lives in Istanbul.