This is my last post for a while, as the Hobgoblin and I are heading out to my parents’ place in western New York state tomorrow. As they have very slow dial-up, I think I’ll have to do without blogs for a few days. It’ll be hard, but I’m going to try my best not to let it get to me. I’ll be back by the middle or end of next week.
I finished Orhan Pamuk’s Snow last night and was very impressed. It’s a beautiful book and one that taught me a lot about Turkey and Turkish culture. I don’t mean to make it sound didactic, but I do think that reading novels is a good way to get a sense of another country and culture. Snow dealt a lot with the conflict between Eastern and Western Europe — the main character Ka has been in exile in Germany for many years and in the novel returns to the Turkish city of Kars, and throughout, he is faced with questions about what it means to have become westernized but not to be fully western. Connected with this cultural conflict is the religious one — shortly after Ka arrives, the city of Kars undergoes a military coup, meant to keep religious conservatives from winning the upcoming election, and throughout the novel religious differences turn violent. Ka takes part in many philosophical and theological discussions about what it means to have given up his faith and about whether or not he has become an atheist.
Ka wanders the city and gets himself involved in adventures; he isn’t all that interested in all the conflict going on around him — he’d really rather write poems and talk to Ipek, the woman who is the real reason he has journeyed to Kars (the ostensible reason is to investigate a rash of suicides committed by young religiously conservative women who want to keep wearing their head scarves). All this is a way for Pamuk to write about religious and political conflict, but it’s also a way for him to consider the relationship of the artist to the political world. It seems like nearly everybody in the novel has aspirations to be a writer; so many people Ka talked with had poems stashed away somewhere or used Ka to try to find a publisher for their work. The novel’s closing section centers around a play, an incredibly loose adaptation of Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, which brings together all the novel’s themes and works through the conflict the city is experiencing.
One thing I found particularly interesting is the way the narrator becomes a character himself, gradually talking about himself more and more as the story proceeds. The narrator’s name is Orhan, making him a stand-in for the author himself, or perhaps another version of the author. At first I found this narratorial intrusion awkward; I wasn’t sure who the narrator was supposed to be and what his relationship to Ka was. All this cleared up gradually, however, and by the end we know quite a lot about him and his presence in the novel adds a layer of complexity to it. His relationship with Ka reminds me of Richard Holmes’s book Footsteps, which I’m currently in the middle of, and also a little bit of The Places in Between by Rory Stewart; in all these examples, one person is following in the footsteps of another, trying to puzzle together what that person’s life is like and to see what that person saw. And then each person writes a book about it. In the case of Snow, the narrator is doing research on a novel about Ka, walking where Ka walked and talking to the people he knew. He follows the exact route Ka took on a book tour, staying in the places he stayed and asking audiences what they remember about Ka.
All this brings me back to travel metaphors, the subject of an earlier post, because part of the narrator’s writing process is traveling (which is true for Holmes and Stewart as well), but writing about travel is itself also a kind of travel (one could say all writing is a kind of travel), as the writer follows the map of the journey, this time in words. And it’s true for the reader too. Following in someone’s footsteps can be done by crossing a landscape but it can also happen as a book gets written and as it gets read. So the narrator tries to relive Ka’s life twice — once by following his path through western Europe and Turkey and another by writing about the experience.
There’s another sense in which the novel is about writing itself. Pamuk talks about what a novel can and can’t do; in one scene, the novel’s narrator talks with another character, Fazil, who is troubled that the narrator plans to write a novel about him and the other residents of Kars. This is what Fazil says to the narrator:
“But I can tell from your face that you want to tell the people who read your novels how poor we are and how different we are from them. I don’t want you to put me into a novel like that.”
“Because you don’t even know me, that’s why! Even if you got to know me and described me as I am, your Western readers would be so caught up in pitying me for being poor that they wouldn’t have a chance to see my life. For example, if you said I was writing an Islamist science-fiction novel, they’d just laugh. I don’t want to be described as someone people smile at out of pity and compassion.”
In another scene, the narrator asks Fazil what he would like him to put in his novel, and this is Fazil’s answer:
“If you write a book set in Kars and put me in it, I’d like to tell your readers not to believe anything you say about me, anything you say about any of us. No one could understand us from so far away.”
“But no one believes in that way what he reads in a novel,” I said.
“Oh, yes, they do,” he cried. “If only to see themselves as wise and superior and humanistic, they need to think of us as sweet and funny, and convince themselves that they sympathize with the way we are and even love us. But if you would put in what I’ve just said, at least your readers will keep a little room for doubt in their minds.”
So we come up against the problem of whether a novelist can capture the truth of somebody’s experience so that a reader can really understand it, so that the reader can get beyond expectations and stereotypes and keep from pitying the poor people of Kars, and so that the novel won’t just be another way of reinforcing the separation between east and west. I opened this post talking about what I learned from the novel, so I guess I do believe that reading novels can tell us something true about other people’s experiences and can help people bridge cultures, but I appreciate this warning about what a complicated process it can be.