On the surface this is a book about a poet, Ka, who returns to Turkey after twelve years of political exile and, on the recommendation of a friend, visits Kars. This town has recently experienced a rash of suicides among young women and is involved in a verbal conflict and public debate about the practice of covering women’s heads. It’s indicative of the conflict between religious observance and atheism and the East and the West that simmers below the surface here. The early part of the novel is narrated from the perspective of Ka himself and the action focuses on a short period of time while Kars is cut off from the rest of Turkey by a heavy snowfall. As the town is isolated, so the action itself becomes more detached from reality. The snow itself a symbol that touches so many levels of this novel.
During this time, the reader follows the interactions of many characters: Ka, the idealistic poet, irritating, hypocritical and self-absorbed; the shallow, vain and selfish Ipek; Kadife, her sister, the principled leader of the headscarf girls; Blue, a dogmatic and unpleasant reactionary Islamic fundamentalist; Sunay, the farcical and pitiful actor looking for one last moment in the spotlight before his reknown fades. Personally, I found none of the characters that likeable and certainly couldn’t empathise with their situations, so what surprised me was how much I liked the novel. Normally, if I don’t empathise with anyone, I find it hard to make a connection with a novel. As I analysed this and read further, I realised that the voice of the narrator, a friend of Ka’s, that dominates the storytelling in later parts of the novel, appealed to me initially on a subconscious level. At a similar time, without giving too much away, the novel shifts and is no longer about Ka himself, but more about the lost poems he wrote during his time in Kars. His experiences are seen in the context of these mythical, absent entities that become characters themselves. I found myself wishing that they not be found as to hear them would shatter the image of their meaning that Pamuk’s description had given me.
Herein lies some of the brilliance of this novel. The reader comes to appreciate the poems from the meaning and inspiration behind them without actually hearing them. First we are introduced to the characters from Ka’s perspective, later the narrator (who we are led to believe is Pamuk) sheds new light on them as he travels to Kars in search of Ka’s notebook, the poems and some kind of explanation behind events he has recounted.
I won’t add more because I don’t want to spoil this for anyone who hasn’t yet read it. I can say that it is an easy read and on one level not challenging to the reader. On another level, however, as you begin to appreciate the layers in this book, it becomes highly thought-provoking, asking the reader to delve beyond the surface to get the most from it. It is definitely one of my ‘Recommended Reads’!