Reading guide for Snow by Orhan Pamuk

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Snow

By Orhan Pamuk

Snow
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  • Hardcover: Aug 2004,
    448 pages.
    Paperback: Apr 2005,
    448 pages.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

ABOUT THIS BOOK
After twelve years of political exile in Germany, the Turkish poet Ka returns to his native Istanbul for his mother’s funeral. There he is asked by a friend at a newspaper to travel to the remote Anatolian town of Kars to report on the municipal elections, as well as on a disturbing series of suicides by women who have been forbidden by the secular government to wear their head scarves at school. He arrives in Kars in the midst of a snowstorm that lasts for three days, cutting the town off from the greater world, and is quickly drawn into an intricate set of circumstances. He meets his beautiful friend Ipek, who has recently separated from her husband, and quickly falls in love with her. He witnesses an assassination, finds himself discussing the possible existence of God with an idealistic student from the Islamic high school, is taken to a meeting with a reputed Islamic terrorist and, after four years without writing a single poem, is visited with a series of poems that arrive fully formed in his mind. While the reason for the women’s suicides remains a mystery, Ka is caught up in a theatrically staged military coup intended to punish the political Islamists whose power is on the rise in Kars.

Balancing empathy and wit, irony and pathos, Snow illuminates the profound difficulties and contradictions of life in lands like Turkey, where western-style democracy and Islamic fundamentalism are dangerously at odds. Snow is a riveting and important work by one of contemporary fiction’s most brilliant practitioners.


Reader's Guide
  1. Almost immediately after the novel opens, the narrator speaks in first person directly to the reader and concludes his interjection of Ka’s “biographical details” with the statement: “I don’t wish to deceive you. I’m an old friend of Ka’s, and I begin this story knowing everything that will happen to him during his time in Kars” [p. 5]. Later, during his report of Ka’s conversation with Necip, the narrator says of Necip, “With a childishness that amazed Ka, he opened his large green eyes, one of which would be shattered in fifty-one minutes” [p. 134]. With these direct statements of the narrator’s foreknowledge, what happens to the fictional conventions of plot and suspense? How does learning that the narrator’s name is Orhan, and that he’s written something called The Black Book [p. 425], affect the reader’s reception of the story?

  2. Ka’s mood at the beginning of the story is dreamlike and nostalgic: “As slowly and silently as the snow in a dream, the traveler fell into a long-desired, long-awaited reverie; cleansed by memories of innocence and childhood, he succumbed to optimism and dared to believe himself at home in this world” [p. 4]. Does Ka remain in this state of optimism and seeming innocence throughout his stay in Kars? As an exile, he is moved by a sense of returning home; does he make a mistake by believing himself at home enough to become involved in the affairs of Kars?

  3. While Ka and Ipek are having coffee in the New Life Pastry Shop, they witness the murder of the director of the Institute of Education. Discuss the conversation between the Institute director and the young man who has been sent to assassinate him [pp. 38–48]. What are the elements that make the scene so effective?

  4. The brief history of Kars on pages 19–21 describes a place at the crossroads of “two empires now defunct,” which has seen “endless wars, rebellions, massacres, and atrocity.” Despite Kemal Atatürk’s westernizing ideology (reinforced brutally by the military), Kars is sunk in poverty and hopelessness; its bourgeoisie has fled. Muhtar says, “The city of Kars and the people in it—it was as if they weren’t real. Everyone wanted to die or to leave. . . . It was as if I’d been erased from history, banished from civilization” [p. 53]. How has the town’s history shaped its inhabitants’ ideas about themselves and their future?

  5. Ka’s conversations with Muhtar, Blue, the boys from the religious high school, Sheikh Efendi, and Kadife [chapters 6, 8, 9, 11,13] explore the gap between traditional Islam and Western secularism. How do these conversations affect Ka’s sense of his spiritual condition? How strongly does he need to identify himself as a secular intellectual, and why is the possibility of his own belief in God, which he admits to, so unsettling to him?

  6. Karl Marx said, “Hegel remarks somewhere that history tends to repeat itself. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce” [The Eighteenth Brumiare of Louis Bonaparte]. In the novel’s most farcical and tragic moments, theatrical impresario Sunay Zaim and his allies the military police stage their own intervention in the history of Kars. Does Pamuk, in these episodes so central to the story, seem to share Marx’s pessimism?

  7. Blue tells a story from the ancient epic Shehname: “Once upon a time, millions of people knew it by heart. . . . But now, because we’ve fallen under the spell of the West, we’ve forgotten our own stories” [p. 78]. What does he imply when he asks Ka, “Is this story so beautiful that a man could kill for it?” [p. 79]

  8. At least three different perspectives are given on the suicide girls. The deputy governor tells Ka, “What is certain is that these girls were driven to suicide because they were extremely unhappy. . . . But if unhappiness were a genuine reason for suicide, half the women in Turkey would be killing themselves” [p. 14]; Ipek says, “The men give themselves to religion, and the women kill themselves” [p. 35]. Kadife argues that women commit suicide to save their pride [p. 112]. Does the novel provide an answer to the mystery of why women are killing themselves?

  9. Speaking with Muhtar, Ka says, “If I were an author and Ka were a character in a book, I’d say, ‘Snow reminds Ka of God!’ But I’m not sure it would be accurate. What brings me close to God is the silence of snow” [p. 60]. Why does the snow make Ka think of God? How do Ka’s thoughts about his own religious beliefs change throughout the novel?

  10. In getting involved with the various factions in Kars, does Ka act on his own behalf, or as the pawn of others? Is he actually, and knowingly, a double agent? As the plot progresses and Ka is moving back and forth between rival groups, what becomes most confusing? Does the reader’s experience mirror Ka’s spiritual and moral bewilderment?

  11. When he travels to Kars, Ka enters another world: “Raised in Istanbul amid the middle-class comforts of Nisantas . . . Ka knew nothing of poverty; it was something beyond the house, in another world” [p. 18]. In the meeting at the Hotel Asia, a Kurdish boy says, “I’ve always dreamed of the day when I’d have a chance to share my ideas with the world. . . . All I’d want them to print in that Frankfurt paper is this: We’re not stupid, we’re just poor! And we have a right to want to insist on this distinction” [p. 275]. Later, Orhan asks, “How much can we ever know about love and pain in another’s heart? How much can we hope to understand those who have suffered deeper anguish, greater deprivation, and more crushing disappointments than we ourselves have known?” [p. 259] Why are these statements so central to the problems of empathy and ethics presented in the novel?

  12. Does the epigraph from Dostoevsky—“Well then, eliminate the people, curtail them, force them to be silent. Because the European enlightenment is more important than people”—sum up the West’s arrogant approach to fundamentalist political movements? How is it relevant to the events in Kars?

  13. Everyone in Kars watches television constantly; they even use the television to watch the coup as it takes place just outside their doors. Given the deliberately theatrical nature of the coup, the uncertainty as to whether the soldiers’ bullets are real, and Sunay’s death onstage during the second performance, what does Pamuk suggest about the relationship between history and fiction, reality and illusion?

  14. Does Ipek love Ka, or does she still love Blue? Does she betray Ka by not going to Frankfurt with him [pp. 388–90]? In an unsent letter, Ka wrote to Ipek, “I carry the scars of my unbearable suffering on every inch of my body. Sometimes I think it’s not just you I’ve lost, but that I’ve lost everything in the world” [p. 260]. Was it foolish of Ka to think that he would be able to have the happiness that love provides? Why does Ipek decide not to go to Germany with him?

  15. “Once a six-pronged snowflake crystallizes, it takes between eight and ten minutes for it to fall through the sky, lose its original shape, and vanish. . . . Ka decided that snowflakes have much in common with people. It was a snowflake that inspired ‘I, Ka’” [pp. 375–76]. The poems that Ka writes in his green notebook while in Kars (kar means “snow”) align with the points on a snowflake. These poems, however, are never recorded in the novel. How seriously should a reader take Ka’s efforts as a poet? What is the significance of the fact that the poems are not available to the reader, but instead we have a novel called Snow?

  16. In several of his novels, Pamuk has created characters who are doubles or alter egos. Here he gives us Ka and the narrator as well as Necip and Fazil. Late in the story, the narrator follows Ka’s trail on a reading tour through various German cities; he wished “to do exactly as Ka had done on his own tour seven weeks earlier. . .  I would wander through the cold empty city and pretend I was Ka walking the same streets to escape the painful memories of Ipek ” [p. 378–379]. Upon following Ka’s trail to Kars, he notes, “I shouldn’t want my readers to imagine that I was trying to become his posthumous shadow” [p. 380]. What do these statements imply?

  17. How is Kadife different from her sister Ipek ? What motivates her to go onstage and bare her head in Sunay’s play? Is she a devout Muslim, or is wearing the headscarf simply a costume necessary for her love affair with Blue?

  18. Reexamine Necip’s story [pp. 104–7] once you’ve reached the end of the novel. Has Necip’s tale foreseen the revelations about the narrator and his love for Ipek, as well as Fazil’s marriage to Kadife? How does Necip live on after his death? How does Ka?

SUGGESTED READING
Yesim Arat, Rethinking Islam and Liberal Democracy: Islamist Women in Turkish Politics;
Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God;
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Demons and Notes from Underground;
Gabriel García Márquez, Chronicle of a Death Foretold;
Jean Genet, The Balcony;
Nilüfer Göle, The Forbidden Modern: Civilization and Veiling;
Franz Kafka, The Castle;
Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being;
Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy;
Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire;
Afar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran;
Nicole Pope, et al., Turkey Unveiled;
Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past;
Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children;
Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North;
Ivan Turgenev, First Love.

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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