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the book: Snow by Orhan Pamuk reviewed by: Stephen P. Cook date of review: May 20, 2020
This is a great book! No wonder its author won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006 shortly after it was translated from Turkish into English and began reaching a wider audience. Besides being a book about love, most basically it is a political novel set in the northeastern Turkey border town of Kars in the late 1990. There the (Islamic / Qu'ran-inspired) religious fundamentalist (theme #9A) based vs. the (Ataturk-inspired—* see note 1 below) secular humanist (theme #10) based worldview theme conflict plays out. There is a suspenseful—and believable—plot, wonderful characters—we get to really know several of them over the book's 425 pages-—and in depth conversation that fully explores themes such as one's conception of God, the search for meaning, escaping solitude, the source of artistic creativity, the morality of suicide, struggling against poverty and ignorance, etc.
Although set in a particular location and time, the story is universal, for, as the author puts it, "the history of his small city had become as one with the history of the world." As for background to the story of the polarized society depicted in the book, he tells us, "Although the people of Kars once lived side by side in happy harmony, in recent years outside forces have turned brother against brother. Disputes between Islamists, secularists, Kurds, Turks, and Azeris drive us asunder for specious reasons..." Seems those forces work by sowing seeds of division and spreading misinformation. As Pamuk tells it, "All over the world...newspapers tailor the news to readers desires. If your readers want nothing but lies from you, who in the world is going to sell papers that tell the truth?" As I write I'm connecting all this to foreign meddling in the 2016 USA election, the rise of Fox News, America's increasing conflict between what often seems like two tribes, and the current leader of one of them who it seems is especially truth-challenged! In this coronavirus plagued environment in which I write, I'm even connecting two symbols and related questions: "Whether to venture out with or without a mask?" and, for women in the book, "Do I or don't I wear a head scarf?" Pamuk refers to the latter as "the flag of Anatolia's oppressed: Muslim women." In this political polarization we have broader worldview theme choices, with "Wishful Thinking" (theme #12A), "Proud Identification & Tribalism" (theme #37A), "Valuing Traditions / Status Quo" (theme #34), and "Hierarchical Rigidity" (theme 203A), pitted against "Honesty Grounded" (theme #6A ), "Global Citizen" (theme #37B), "Working for Change" (theme #35B), and "Egalitarian Progressive" (theme #203B), to name a few.
In the realm of how people choose to live their lives, the book faces squarely many questions . One is, in the author's words, "How can we ever know about the love and pain in another's heart?" Another is, "Is it true that 'people who seek only happiness never find it'?" Or a related one, given certain grim realities, "Could it be that 'happiness is finding another world to live in, a world where you can forget all this poverty and tyranny'?" Recognizing that some some attempt to escape in this fashion, and others don't have this option, a key question in the book is , "Why do people commit suicide?" This choice is especially difficult in a culture with posters saying, "Human Beings are God's Masterpieces. Suicide is Blasphemy". The author describes one of the more principled characters, in disdaining selfishly escaping to happiness in the West, by sharing his thought: "it was important to act for the common good, to take responsibility for his country's poor and share in their struggles, because he was on the side of the civilizers."
While several themes tie the story together, so does the substance that gives the book its title: snow (* see note 2). One of the book's main female characters believes, "snow draws people together," and it can "cast a veil over hatreds, greed, and wrath and make everyone feel close to one another." The book's main character, a poet and sometime atheist, feels, "what brings me close to God is the silence of snow." Like Coleridge, in his account of the birth of his famous poem "Kublai Khan," he doesn't feel the poems are his own. Instead they come into his head from an outside source and, in writing them down, it's "as if he was taking dictation." To account for them he hypothesizes, "I think it is God who is sending me the poems." Interestingly, before coming to Kars he neither receives poems in this fashion nor believes in God. For him, a diagram he creates based on the structure of a snowflake—with three axes labeled "Memory, Imagination, and Reason"— becomes a way to "puzzle out his own life" and "map out the spiritual course of every person." Using this, he plots each of the nineteen poems that come to him during his short (less than a week) stay in Kars.
With the long ago creation of Project Worldview, with the formulation and steady refinement of themes—there are now 104 of them organized in various ways—into a systematized structure capable of characterizing and analyzing the worldview of every person, you can guess that I might appreciate this snowflake diagram effort of Pamuk! I did even more so when—toward the end of the book—he reveals it's been loosely inspired by Francis Bacon's "Tree of Knowledge" of roughly 400 years ago! This happens, four years after the plot's climax, as the book's very much in the background narrator, Pamuk himself, assumes an active role as a character in helping us making sense of all that has happened. You already know I found this book to be a very thought-provoking and satisfying read—but I also liked the ending, which, like life, has both happy and sad aspects.
1) for a characterization of Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkey, in worldview theme terms, click here.
2) in Turkish, the book's title is "Kar" — so the city Kars is named for the snow it receives.
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