Winter Wilderness: A Review of Snow by Orhan Pamuk

January 3, 2008 | 1 book mentioned 2 4 min read

This guest contribution comes from Kevin Hartnett. Hartnett lives in Philadelphia with his fiance. After graduating from college in 2003, he joined Teach For America and taught sixth grade in the Bronx for two years. He enjoys politics and travel and writing about both.

coverSnow, Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk’s 2004 novel, opens as Ka, a stranger come to town, steps off a bus into the first flurries of a gathering snowstorm. He has arrived in Kars, a remote border city in eastern Turkey and a place, like much of his native country, that is foreign to him. For the last eight years Ka has lived as an exiled poet in Hamburg, shifting anonymously between the public library and the cheap porn shops near his apartment. In Kars, his bourgeois Istanbul accent and department store coat mark him as an outsider.

The city appears muffled at first, its citizens dispirited by poverty and forced inside by the cold. Kars is a place of former glory, once a haunt of the Ottomans and the Russian tsars, now crumbling and forgotten as the rest of Turkey looks west to Europe. Ka, however, feels revitalized in Kars.

He has come ostensibly as a journalist, to report on an epidemic of suicides among the “headscarf girls,” a group of young women who killed themselves after a law prohibited women from participating in public life with their heads covered. It is soon evident, though, that Ka has little interest in the story, or politics generally. Even his exile was prompted simply by a case of mistaken identity, an apt fate for a man whose own apparent weightlessness would have caused him to suffer the misfortune with little objection.

Ka has not had sex in four years or written a poem in nearly that long and he feels the promise of a dual rebirth in Kars. His real reason for making the trip is Ipek, an acquaintance from high school whom he remembers only for her beauty. Ka takes a room at the Snow Palace Hotel where she lives, and wastes little time pressing his intentions. Ipek appears amenable, yet cautions that she could never make love while her father is under the same roof, and her father almost never leaves the hotel. Thus left to bide his time, Ka wanders the streets of Kars, finding creative inspiration in the rapidly falling snow, and learning, by chance encounter, about the political rifts and personal aspirations which rend Kars.

He is approached by boys from the local religious high school, who interrogate Ka about his belief in God. One of the boys, Mesut, asks him, “do you or don’t you believe that God Almighty created the universe and everything in it, even the snow that is falling from the sky?” Ka replies only that, “The snow reminds me of God.” It is the type of elision by which Snow frequently works. Characters, their views and their motivations are elusive and unknown, often even to themselves.

The boys’ interest in Ka turns out to be more than mere curiosity or defiance. Fazil, a particularly earnest boy, was in love with Teslime, a headscarf girl who committed suicide. He says to Ka, “We could not believe that a Muslim girl ready to sacrifice everything for her faith could be capable of suicide” (which is forbidden by the Koran). Fazil fears that Teslime’s suicide reveals her to have been an atheist, and even worse, he has begun to worry that it marks him by association. He seeks Ka’s reassurance. “‘Are you an atheist” asked Fazil with imploring eyes. ‘If you are an atheist, do you want to kill yourself?'”

Pamuk began writing Snow before 9/11 and the book presages the lines of conflict which have erupted since. The religious boys are poor, provincial, and wary of “The West,” for mocking their faith. Their counterpoint is Sunay Zaim, an effete, secular actor, whose traveling theater troupe comes to Kars to perform an intentionally provocative version of the Turkish play “My Country or My Headscarf.” Zaim uses the performance to launch a coup when, mid-scene, prop guns turn out to have been loaded with real bullets.

Ka’s confused beliefs about God and his mixed identity, as a Turk, an exile, and an outsider in Kars (an accurate description of Pamuk as well), inspire leaders on both sides of the coup to promote their cause to him. Ka is secreted to a meeting with Blue, a charismatic Islamist leader and possible terrorist, who is repulsed by Ka’s mealy convictions, but nevertheless wants his help getting a statement out to Western newspapers. Zaim likewise beckons Ka, hoping that he could secure the participation of Ipek’s sister Kadife, an outspoken headscarf girl, in the dramatic final act of the coup.

For his part, Ka would rather simply pursue the affections of Ipek and the reinvigorated direction of his muse. He admits to feeling “so ashamed of his wish for happiness” yet after years of austere loneliness abroad that is all he wants. Such pretensions to happiness are not well accommodated in Kars, however. The falling snow evokes God to Ka and inspires an eponymous poem, but it also has a more practical role in the story. It abets the coup by blocking the roads into the city.

Snow is haunted by the specter of religious suicide and rife with the political strife that defines our time. Pamuk handles both thoughtfully and subtly, but his final concern is happiness, and whether such a thing is possible in a world where ideological pressure and cultural change confuse an individual looking for his own path towards belief. If Ka is an emblematic figure, than our prospects seem dim, though Pamuk does offer the possibility of redemption in the story itself, well told and beautifully written as it is.

, a staff writer for The Millions, writes the Brainiac ideas column for the Boston Globe and blogs about fatherhood and family life at You can follow him on Twitter at @kshartnett.


  1. "Snow" was a little slow-going, but I also enjoyed it. He definitely takes you into the world of this small Turkish village and fundamentalism.

  2. I read "Snow" a couple of years ago, and was taken with the oddly sympathetic view of Turkey's Islamic underclass, juxtaposed onto the the revisionist secular government. This is the skill of an excellent writer – to portray such irony and paradox without making the literary work seem a biased attack on one or the other.

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