Left unfinished

I abandon books so rarely that when I say that I have chosen not to finish Snow by Orhan Pamuk, I want you to understand my full meaning.

225px-Snow_(novel)Snow came highly recommended by both my former housemates, particularly Kali. By the summaries provided—a journalist-poet finally returned to Turkey from years of political exile goes to a small town to cover the municipal elections and to investigate a curious string of young girl suicides—I thought I would find it interesting, too. However, what the Spectator calls “a gripping political thriller” is anything but. Considering that I have read 358 of this book’s 436 pages, I am not putting this book down lightly. I have enumerated my negative responses behind the cut. Read them if you wish.

My problems are the following:

  1. Ka admits early on that his actual reason for going to Kars is because he heard that İpek is newly divorced and he wants to marry her. Although he goes around interviewing various people in the town about the elections and the suicides, he cares about neither story. If Pamuk’s purpose was to illustrate the clash between secular and extremist Islamic worlds, he failed, because his “objective” character is apathetic, and thus this reader is apathetic, too. Ka only cares about the headscarf girls because İpek’s sister is one of them, but he is not actually interested in their political ideas. Once a political activist himself, his years of exile have left him jaded and simply uninterested. Not a good combination for a protagonist in your political novel.
  2. This may be an issue with translation, but Ka repeatedly dreams about his “happily ever after” with İpek. Perhaps there is a phrase in Turkish that has a similar meaning, but is taken seriously. In English, however, it seems very out of character for a bourgeois atheist poet to walk around dreaming about his “happily ever after”—it sounds jarring, vapid, and naïve. Obviously, it has gotten on my nerves.
  3. In a similar vein, you are also told somewhat early on that they do not have have a happily ever after, and the situation was not built up in a way that I cared to find out why their relationship didn’t work out. If they even had a relationship. “Hi, haven’t seen you in 10 years, but I want you to come back to Frankfurt with me”? Sex and jealousy do not a happy relationship make.
  4. Ka is a poet, and while in Kars he writes poetry. Fine; but Pamuk goes a step further and writes what Ka’s poems are about. The first time or two this is alright, but no, it goes on: “He began to write a poem—the tenth to have come to him since his arrival in Kars. In the opening lines, he extolled the singularity of snowflakes, then went on to describe his childhood memories of the mother-and-child he had just failed to find at the back of the fourth volume of The Encyclopedia of Life. In the final lines he mapped out a vision of himself and his place in the world, his special fears, his distinctive attributes, his uniqueness. The title he gave this poem was ‘I, Ka.'” (p. 220) I’m sorry, but if you’re going to give entire paragraphs about what the poem is about then just give me the damn poem. The book is 436 pages long. He writes a lot of poems. Even if—and here I am relying on the summary Wikipedia gives—the poems are lost, then Pamuk should have either said the poems were lost at the beginning of the narrative, or not have even bothered describing them at all.
  5. Again, this might be an issue of translation, or my own unfamiliarity with Turkish culture and history, but all of the characterizations and dialogue seem stale. Only Kadife was interesting to me, and even that interest faded quickly.
  6. Mr Pamuk is a character in his own book. I tend to only find this acceptable in Early Modern works in which the author’s character acts as a liaison between the reader and the story; an “Everyman” character. Modern authors do not do this. I do not approve.
  7. It took more than 300 pages to finally have someone say what decade they were in. This would have been much more useful nearer the beginning, so that I could have a frame of reference and didn’t have to spend the entire time guessing.
  8. The fact that this was such a slow read: I had intended to read at least ten books during my month off but, if I include Snow, I have only read five. Last week I had 110 pages left, and Kelly persuaded me to take a break and read The Graveyard Book. It was wonderful: a ray of sunshine warming a mind that had been frozen by Snow. Then I resumed Snow, determined to finish it. A week later and I still have 78 pages left. Sarah said last night that unless I turn to something else, this time next week I will be telling her, “I only have 57 pages left!” She’s right. Time to move on.
  9. Moreover, Snow made me not only unhappy with reading, but also with writing. It has frozen even my creativity. I was only able to reread Bede after reading The Graveyard Book. It was only after beginning The Other Wind by Ursula K. Le Guin that I was able to, today, finally come up with the final scene for Bede. If a book makes me so unhappy with the two things I love to do most, then there is most definitely no reason to continue reading it.

That said, last night I turned my attention to my beloved Le Guin, and even the first words brought waves of relief:

“Sails long and white as swan’s wings carried the ship Farflyer through summer air down the bay from the Armed Cliffs toward Gont Port. She glided into the still water landward of the jetty, so sure and graceful a creature of the wind that a couple of townsmen fishing off the old quay cheered her in, waving to the crewmen and the one passenger standing in the prow.”

I read on, about the man who disembarked and walked up the mountain to a cottage outside the town of Re Albi, and settled in comfortably to a world familiar and characters I love, and when the stranger laid down to sleep beneath the peach trees, I went to sleep, too.

5 thoughts on “Left unfinished

    • Chera says:

      I probably should have, but I did mention that I was (am) stubborn. I shall have to (try to) follow my friend Sarah’s advice from now on: there are too many books out there I want to read to waste my times on ones that frustrate me.


  1. Joseph says:

    I enjoyed this post, Chera!

    I also stopped ploughing through snow, though at a much earlier stage and for shallower reasons. I found it bland and boring. Books in which the main character is a writer are always dubious, as if only writers have any kind of inner life, or the author can’t imagine anything outside his own milieu.

    I think it’s often the case that political novels about undemocratic regimes are given too easy a ride in the western literary press because just writing the novel is considered an act of heroism.

    “Essential reading for our times,” said Margaret Atwood in the New York Times.

    “Maybe it reads better in Turkish,” said John Updike in the New Yorker.


    • Chera says:

      I like John Updike already: I had found myself thinking the same thing. Something is always lost when books are translated into another language, but I’ve read some really amazing books that were still amazing after being translated into English. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco is a perfect example.


  2. Megan says:

    As soon as you started describing problem #4, I thought, “The poem is narrated instead of written? Why bother?” and the immediate answer that came into my mind was… The author isn’t a poet and couldn’t come up with them but wanted to say what they were about as if it’s important. That would be lame. And if he had tried it might’ve been more lame than what it was. Haha- although, in English then you would definitely have more of those “was this better in Turkish?” moments.

    And that’s one of the many reasons we celebrate Tolkein. Not only did he invent their languages and histories, but their poetry as well.

    Thanks for the explanation. I have enough trouble getting to/through all the books I want to as it is to bother picking this one up, I’m sure.


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