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Saturday, May 26, 2018

A book about other people and therefore us

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"It comes as a surprise that political prescience should be yet another of the many gifts of Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk," wrote Stephen O'Shea when he reviewed Snow in the Independent in May 2004. Months later, Margaret Atwood also described the novel as "eerily prescient" in the New York Times, specifically the novel's handling of fundamentalism, as it was written before 9/11.

It's easy to make a case for this reading: set in a city where Islamic radicals are encouraging women to wear headscarves, where fundamentalists make dire threats against the secular state, murder in the name of religion and reel off anti-European rhetoric. Viewed through the prism of 11 September 2001, Snow does seem allegorical.

But, reading it in 2018, another thread of spooky prescience emerges. Ka is a well-connected man, a poet, who travels to the distant, "forgotten" town of Kars, where inhabitants resent and fear educated cosmopolitans. Many are unemployed, nearly all feel ignored. Blow-hard demagogues move in to take advantage of this unhappiness for their own political ends, while local papers gleefully make up news stories, aiming to change the future as much as to misrepresent the past. Nationalists are stirring up hatred and tension.

The town feels increasingly cut off from the rest of the world and from reality ... you get the idea. We see these parallels partly due to the reader's natural solipsism, the tendency to see our own world reflect in whatever we're reading. But there is also something about the artist's eye, their ability to pick up on ideas and concerns long before the rest of us. It isn't that they see the future, but they often do read the present with a sharper eye.

But there's another less mystical, possibly less Eurocentric, truth: Pamuk was asked by a New York Times reporter in 2004 about the Turkey in the novel. Pamuk said that he wanted to explore "the Westernised intellectual's worldview coming to terms with the poorest, most forgotten and perhaps most ignored part of the country. The most angry part, too."

So Pamuk both was and wasn't writing our future, or thinking about Brexit-voters in Lincolnshire or Trump voters in Arizona - but he was thinking about people in Turkey, who, it turns out, may have plenty in common with them. What's more, Pamuk was also trying to understand these people, which is another gift that novelists bring us - sympathy rather than judgement.

Orhan the narrator may recognise that he has far more in common with Ka than the people of Kars. But he doesn't try to suggest that his protagonist is better or worse for that. We are persuaded to feel his yearning and sadness, his fear and hope. We can't help rooting for him. Yet, objectively, Ka is a loser; a lonely guy, barely able to support himself, living in a flat full of pornography. And when he is in Kars, he happily sacrifices the safety of an old man (and the whole town along with him), just to snatch time in bed with the woman he fancies.

Conversely, Pamuk doesn't try to make us believe that anyone is all bad. He helps us to understand idealism and beliefs of Islamic radical Blue, and more touchingly still, of the naive schoolboys who follow this dangerous teacher.
Pamuk explained to the New York Times: "I think literature can approach these problems because you can go into more shady areas, areas where no one is right and no one has the right to say what is right. That's what makes writing novels interesting. It's what makes writing a political novel today interesting."

It's also what makes reading Snow so fascinating, and what makes it resonate as strongly today as it did in 2004. It's this empathy that will also allow future generations to read Snow in 2028, 2038, 2048 and see it as a mirror of their own concerns. At root, it is about other people - and so, it is about us, too.


The writer is a regular contributor of The Guardian.The write-up has appeared on www.theguardian.com

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