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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Snow

by
Orhan Pamuk


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Snow



Title: Snow
Author: Orhan Pamuk
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002 (Eng. 2004)
Length: 426 pages
Original in: Turkish
Availability: Snow - US
Snow - UK
Snow - Canada
Snow - India
Neige - France
Schnee - Deutschland
Neve - Italia
Nieve - España
  • Turkish title: Kar
  • Translated by Maureen Freely

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting and quite well done, but loses its grip

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 31/5/2004 David Robson
The Economist . 12/8/2004 .
Le Figaro A 27/10/2005 Manuel Carcassonne
The Guardian . 29/5/2004 James Buchan
Harper's . 8/2004 John Leonard
The Independent A 14/5/2004 Paul Bailey
Independent on Sunday . 23/5/2004 Stephen O'Shea
London Rev. of Books . 5/8/2004 Christopher Tayler
The LA Times . 15/8/2004 Michael McGaha
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 22/2/2005 Monika Carbe
New Statesman . 10/5/2004 Julian Evans
The NY Rev. of Books . 12/5/2005 Christian Caryl
The NY Times . 10/8/2004 Richard Eder
The NY Times Book Rev. A 25/8/2004 Margaret Atwood
The New Yorker . 30/8/2004 John Updike
The Observer . 30/5/2004 Sarah Emily Miano
San Francisco Chronicle . 22/8/2004 Laurel Maury
The Spectator A+ 8/5/2004 John de Falbe
Sunday Telegraph . 23/5/2004 Tom Payne
TLS . 14/5/2004 Michael Gorra
The Village Voice . 17/8/2004 John Freeman
The Washington Post . 29/8/2004 Ruth Franklin


  Review Consensus:

  Most very impressed, with a few reservations

  From the Reviews:
  • "Pamuk has hitherto been an acquired taste in the West; but this sprawling, emotionally charged story, with its flashes of black comedy, could well secure him the readership he deserves. (...) To a Western reader, the logic of events will be as foreign as the cock-fights which seem to be the main after-dark entertainment in Kars. But in the excellent, sardonic Pamuk, they have a first-rate guide to the social tensions of provincial Turkey." - David Robson, Daily Telegraph

  • "It is also a tragic love story, a thriller and, more broadly, a dark journey into familiar Pamuk territory: faith, identity, betrayal and solitude. (...) One of the achievements of “Snow” is to look beyond the tired arguments about why so many Turkish women cover their heads." - The Economist

  • "Neige le bien-nommé est un tour de force, un conte tragi-comique, un opéra-bouffe qui joue de toutes les voix, une boîte de Pandore. Orhan Pamuk le sait, qui en rirait presque, maître de ses effets. Le roman à la fois oriental et postmoderne, présente tous les piéges que la conversation de son auteur élimine." - Manuel Carcassonne, Le Figaro

  • "Pamuk's master here is Dostoevsky, but amid the desperate students, cafés, small shopkeepers, gunshots and inky comedy are the trickeries familiar from modern continental fiction. The result is large and expansive, but, even at 436 pages, neither grand nor heavy." - James Buchan, The Guardian

  • "This is playful, postmodern Pamuk, the author of The White Castle and My Name Is Red, who nods in passing at Oedipus, Robespierre, Stendhal, Mallarmé, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Conrad. But in its sendup of romantic poetry, political theater, and the anthropological relationship between Marxism-Leninism and anti-Western nationalism, Snow is also written by the man who got into trouble for supporting the rights of Kurds and opposing Iran's fatwa on Rushdie." - John Leonard, Harper's

  • "Snow is also an avowedly political work of fiction, of a kind still relatively rare in Britain. It finds voices for religious and other fanatics, for reactionaries and the occasional moderniser, and those who maintain that their arcane beliefs need not be challenged with reason. (...) It's a novel full of orchestrated surprises and shocks, and perhaps too many overlong digressions. Pamuk has fared badly in the past with some English translations, but Maureen Freely has served him excellently here." - Paul Bailey, The Independent

  • "A meeting of Noises Off and The Clash of Civilisations, the work is a melancholy farce full of rabbit-out-of-a-hat plot twists that, despite its locale, looks uncannily like the magic lantern show of misfire, denial and pratfall that appears daily in our newspapers. How could Pamuk have foreseen this at his writing desk four years ago ? (...) But the strength of Snow lies in its failings. The less believable the characters, the more true-to-life they appear." - Stephen O'Shea, Independent on Sunday

  • "The novel vividly portrays the cruelty and intolerance of both the Islamic fundamentalists and the representatives of the secularist Turkish state. More importantly, however, Pamuk has created believable, sympathetic characters representing both sides of that great divide and has given eloquent voice to their anger and frustration. These are no monsters but ordinary human beings who actually have much more in common than they would wish to acknowledge." - Michael McGaha, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Der Roman ist als Warnung zu verstehen, geschrieben in tiefer Sorge um die Gegenwart der Türkei, in der einander widersprechende Tendenzen die alternde wie die junge Generation verstören und vor allem Letztere religiösen Heilsversprechen in die Arme treiben. Mit dem ruhigen Duktus des Ich-Erzählers gewinnt das Rationale schliesslich die Oberhand über zu viel Versunkenheit in mystische Spielereien und Spekulationen." - Monika Carbe, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Pamuk's modesty as a writer, his refusal to write as if he knows what is happening, is one of his finest qualities. There are episodes in this novel -- such as the conversation in a coffee shop between the director of the education institute and his assassin about the state's banning of headscarves -- that illuminate the confrontation between secular and extremist Islamic worlds better than any work of non- fiction I can think of." - Julian Evans, New Statesman

  • "Where Pamuk really excels in this novel is in the deftness with which he allows these forces to tug at one another. Like Dostoevsky, the literary forebear whose spirit haunts this book most palpably, Pamuk appears to value politics, among other things, as a great opportunity to let his characters rant in all sorts of productive ways." - Christian Caryl, The New York Review of Books

  • "It is a novel of lesser scope than its grand and magical predecessor and more narrowly focused, although it is enriched by the author's same mesmerizing mixes: cruelty and farce, poetry and violence, and a voice whose timbres range from a storyteller's playfulness to the dark torment of an explorer, lost. All this finds voices through characters whose tactile immediacy fades imperceptibly into a fog of ambiguousness and contradiction." - Richard Eder, The New York Times

  • "This seventh novel from the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk is not only an engrossing feat of tale-spinning, but essential reading for our times. (...) Like Pamuk's other novels, Snow is an in-depth tour of the divided, hopeful, desolate, mystifying Turkish soul." - Margaret Atwood, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Pamuk’s conscience-ridden and carefully wrought novel, tonic in its scope, candor, and humor, does not incite us, even in our imaginations, to overthrow existing conditions in Turkey. (...) To produce a major work so frankly troubled and provocatively bemused and, against the grain of the author’s usual antiquarian bent, entirely contemporary in its setting and subjects, took the courage that art sometimes visits upon even its most detached practitioners." - John Updike, The New Yorker

  • "Pamuk suggests that his country can only rediscover itself through storytelling. So he makes the call even as he answers it, with a political allegory that provides an historical vision of his society. The account takes the form of a meticulously constructed snowflake in which nothing is out of place, and where revelation and concealment occur in impeccable order." - Sarah Emily Miano, The Observer

  • "Pamuk has written a book to make readers uncomfortable on both sides of the Bosphorus. Snow, despite its flaws, is an excellent work." - Laurel Maury, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "But what makes it a brilliant novel is its artistry. Pamuk keeps so many balls in the air that you cannot separate the inquiry into the nature of religious belief from the examination of modern Turkey, the investigation of East-West relations, and the nature of art itself -- and, by implication, life, for the stage(d) coup is certainly deadly, and art and life mimic one another with hideous, occasionally hilarious, persistence. All this rolled into a gripping political thriller." - John de Falbe, The Spectator

  • "In Snow, Pamuk uses his powers to show us the critical dilemmas of modern Turkey. How European a country is it ? How can it respond to fundamentalist Islam ? And how can an artist deal with these issues ?" - Tom Payne, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Still, if what Pamuk wants is the heightened febrile talk of The Devils, what we get is something closer to the endlessness of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled. Snow isn't nearly so successful as My Name Is Red, and not only because grey, impoverished Kars isn't as engaging as sixteenth-century Istanbul. The characters' debates lack the sense of consequentiality the court painters had in the earlier book. And this is strange, for their discussions all turn on the relation between Islam and Turkey's secular state, between Islam and the West; strange because that argument is ours too" - Michael Gorra, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The book's compelling side drama of a writer struggling to remain apolitical is nearly occluded in the blizzard of themes. In time, it would be nice to have the pleasure of reading Snow not simply as the political novel it certainly is, but as a work of art." - John Freeman, The Village Voice

  • "This disorientation is surely Pamuk's intention. But even after the novel has come to its wrenching conclusion, the atmospheric haze is difficult to dispel. Snow has none of the tautness of My Name Is Red; its action moves thickly, at times impenetrably. Clarity is not enhanced by a tone that at times jerks wildly from knowing sophistication to faux naiveté." - Ruth Franklin, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In Snow the poet Ka returns to Turkey after more than a decade abroad, and journeys to Kars, far in the east. Among the things he hopes to find there is an old classmate and love, Ipek, now separated from her husband. He also plans to explore and report on a wave of suicides by girls there.
       It is snowing when Ka arrives, and the snow continues to fall, cutting off the town from the rest of the world. There is tension there: an upcoming mayoral election, the struggle between religion and secularism, a heavy-handed police presence. The conflict between Islam -- and, for example, the right of girls to go to school wearing head-scarves -- and the secular society the government has imposed causes the most problems; it is also an explanation for why the girls are killing themselves.
       Ka is an outsider. He begins as a dutiful journalist, talking to a variety of town figures, trying to learn more about the suicides, but finds himself drawn into this larger conflict. Throughout the country, and especially in this region, it is no longer the Kurds that are perceived by the authorities as being the greatest threat, but the increasingly influential Islamists. Ka, respected as a poet but tainted as one who has presumably been polluted by Western thought and ways, is viewed with both suspicion and interest by both sides. The police are reluctant to rough him up -- as they do the locals -- because of his Istanbul and German connexions, while the Islamists see him as the enemy (godless, westernised) but warily accept that he might be able to help convey their message. Eventually, he is also used as a go-between by both sides.
       Ka is also racked by self-doubt -- and god-doubt, as the question of his atheism constantly arises. Resurgent Islam doesn't accept half measures, however: Ka is warned:

If you want to save your skin, I would advise you to increase your faith in God at the earliest opportunity. it won't be long, I fear, before a moderate belief in God will be insufficient to save the skin of an old atheist.
       Even when he thinks he believes, the artist Ka clearly has a different conception of godliness, as he is reminded by one of the Islamic leaders when he describes it:
       "Before I got here, I hadn't written a poem in years," he said. "But since coming to Kars, all the roads on which poetry travels here have reopened. I attribute this to the love of God I've felt here."
       "I don't want to destroy your illusions, but your love of God comes out of Western romantic novels," said Blue. "In a place like this, if you worship God as a European, you're bound to be a laughingstock. Then you cannot even believe you believe. You don't belong to this country; you're not even a Turk anymore. First try to be like everyone else. then try to believe in God."
       The conflict is everywhere: even Ipek's family, which runs the hotel where Ka is staying, is half-torn, as Ipek's sister Kadife is active in the Islamist movement and a strong believer, while Ipek's marriage broke up over her husband's embrace of Islam and his unacceptable (to her) demand that she wear a head-scarf.
       A locally televised performance, at which Ka also reads one of his poems, goes catastrophically (and surreally) wrong, leading to a mini-coup and curfew, and a further clamp-down on the Islamists -- who, however, have much local support. The city remains cut off -- for a few days a world unto itself -- and the conflict continues, its many players as active as ever. Ka, meanwhile, is pushed back and forth between them, unable to extricate himself -- while all the while pursuing Ipek.
       There is much discussion of the proper course of action. Tolerance is shown by individuals, but seems almost impossible to put into practise, as each force seeks to impose its own absolutism (symbolized by the head scarf, but obviously going much further). Each side, too, is undermined from within: suicide is a grievous sin, while the arbitrary show of force by those in power have little to do with actual secular ideals (and show little respect for the rights of individuals).
       Art is central to the novel, and two theatrical performance -- each involving at least one shooting -- are the centrepieces of the book. In truly dramatic fashion, revolution is practised on the stage (though the resonance -- as described -- isn't quite as strong as one might imagine). Then there is Ka, who is able to write poetry again: none of the poems are reproduced here, but the genesis of each is carefully noted and often described in some detail; there is even an index at the end of the book, of "The order in which Ka wrote his poems".
       It is the desire to write a book about these poems that leads the narrator -- an alter-Orhan Pamuk, and longtime friend of Ka's -- to tell this story. The presentation is unusual, the narrator at the fore in certain chapters, acknowledging that he writes this years after the events and describing his research in Germany and Turkey on the trail of Ka, while elsewhere disappearing entirely and presenting the story as it happens, as if he had witnessed all the events. He reveals some of what happened before he describes it -- Ka's fate, for example --, an odd approach that takes some of the suspense away and yet also serves to focus attention more on the why, revealed only when the events are allowed to unfold.
       Snow is a book about the difficulties faced by a nation torn between tradition, religion, and modernization. Set in the farthest east of Turkey, the locals are certain that in Western eyes they're all considered ignorant yokels. They suffer from a dreadful inferiority complex, and a need to prove themselves to counter that. Religion is the easiest crutch to rely on (and, in the case of this religion, one that conveniently scares the hell out of the infidels, of course). The struggle is not only with the West, however, but with the strong tradition of secularism in Turkey itself. As one character says:
     "To play the rebel heroine in Turkey you don't pull off your scarf, you put it on."
       In Snow Pamuk effectively portrays these difficulties, and the many ambiguities in contemporary Turkish life -- there's little that's simply black and white here -- but the book loses steam about halfway through (or bogs down in the snow, which there's an awful lot of here). There's a great deal of dialogue; Ka's uncertain position -- he's not entirely sure where he stands -- makes him even more of an odd man out, and after a while one longs for more certainty, rather than -- as it seems to become -- less and less. There's also quite a bit of negotiation, as people are asked to do certain things in exchange for other things, but the uneven playing field generally does not lead to satisfying (or at least hoped for) results; that's perhaps realistic, yet not entirely satisfying for the reader. Positions -- especially the locals' inferiority complex vis à vis the West -- are also occasionally too simply presented.
       The elements of the book -- even the dominant snow -- are often creative and clever. From the beginning of a science fiction novel written by one boy to the complex affair between Ka and Ipek to the shadow of the suicides hanging over the entire story, Pamuk offers much that impresses and moves the reader -- but his hold is ultimately also unsure. He tries just that bit too much and too hard, and he can't quite sustain it.

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Links:

Snow: Reviews: Orhan Pamuk: Other books by Orhan Pamuk under review: Other books of interest under review under review:

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About the Author:

       Internationally acclaimed Turkish author Orhan Pamuk was born in 1952. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2006.

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© 2004-2013 the complete review

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