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In defense of Turkish cigarettes
by Orhan Pamuk

Reviewed by Spengler

"Like mist rising from cracked asphalt, smoke swirls slowly in a mute vortex from the shallowness of the ashtray's bowl, like the silent deadfall of snow, except that it floats up rather than down ..." I do not remember now whether this passage actually appears in Orhan Pamuk's latest novel, Snow, but if it does not, there are hundreds that sound just like it in Maureen Freely's translation. It is late at night, and I have lit another Turkish Special, crimping in its oval shape just enough to ease the draft, but not too much, or the outpouring of its incense would overwhelm the senses. Turkish cigarettes, like Turkish coffee and raki, define Turkish culture as much as English culture is defined by "Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, 19th-century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar", in T S Eliot's enumeration (see What is American culture?, November 18, 2003).

Marlboro Reds, however, are Orhan Pamuk's cigarette of choice, an intimation that Turkey's most celebrated chronicler always will stand outside the window of the Turkish soul looking in. The book has only one hero, an Islamist radical identified as "Blue", who sadly praises Marlboro Reds as America's one real gift to the world. Preferring Marlboros to Turkish tobacco is as bad as choosing McDonald's over meze (traditional Turkish appetizers).

None of this would merit the attention of Asia Times Online readers except that Turkey has taken Orhan Pamuk as its reigning bard to the point that US President George W Bush hailed Pamuk as a bridge between East and West during his recent visit to Turkey. Pamuk threw contempt on Bush's praise in an August 15 interview with Alexander Star in the New York Times:
Star: When George Bush was in Istanbul recently for the NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] summit, he referred to you as a "great writer" who has helped bridge the divide between East and West. Citing your own statements about how people around the world are very much alike, he defended American efforts to help people in the Middle East enjoy their "birthright of freedom". Did you think he understood what you meant?

Pamuk: I think George Bush put a lot of distance between East and West with this war. He made the whole Islamic community unnecessarily angry with the United States, and in fact with the West. This will pave the way to lots of horrors and inflict cruel and unnecessary pain to lots of people. It will raise the tension between East and West. These are things I never hoped would happen. In my books I always looked for a sort of harmony between the so-called East and West. In short, what I wrote in my books for years was misquoted, and used as a sort of apology for what had been done. And what had been done was a cruel thing.
Turkey, I have argued in the past (Careful what you Bush for, August 3), once again is the sick man of Europe, and its loss of grip frees the dogs of a new Great War. Those in the West who still view Turkey as a pillar of Western influence in a troubled region should read Snow sitting down. At length, American policy analysts have sounded the alarm over Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's perceived Islamist agenda, eg Michael Rubin in National Review Online on August 10. Pamuk portrays a Turkey whose center cannot hold because it has rotted away.

Suicide is the recurring theme of Pamuk's new novel. Franz Kafka's "K" provides the archetype for his protagonist, the poet "Ka", with characters and situations borrowed explicitly from The Trial and The Castle, down to the setting in a snowbound provincial town. But the town in this case is Kars, where Armenians outnumbered Turks 14-1 at the outbreak of World War I. After the extermination or exile of the local Armenian population, their monuments and churches remain as a ghastly admonition to the impoverished and largely idle Turkish inhabitants. The Turks of Kars live on foreign ground, buffeted by the Westernizing ideas of Kemal Ataturk and the Arabic ideas of the Koran. Ultimately they have nothing of their own, and dwell on the idea of suicide.

Ka is there to look up an old girlfriend, but as a pretext secures an assignment to report on an epidemic of suicides among young women. Female suicide is widespread in the Islamic world; such an epidemic occurred in Turkey during the early 1990s, and another one claimed the lives of several dozen young women in the Afghan city of Herat during 2002.

Not only the women want to die. Another character explains, "You see hundreds of these jobless, luckless, hopeless, motionless poor creatures in every town ... They've forgotten how to keep themselves tidy, they've lost the will to button up their stained jackets ... their powers of concentration are so weak they can't follow a story to its conclusion ... they watched TV not because they liked or enjoyed the programs but because they couldn't bear to hear about their fellows' depression, and television helped to show them out; what they really wanted was to die, but they didn't think themselves worthy of suicide," that is, unlike their women.

Not only the unemployed but the intelligentsia hover at the edge of a suicide's grave. Ka's love interest divorced her husband who embraced Islam after attempting to freeze himself to death in the street. The young seminarians who puppy-like approach Ka cannot understand why he, an atheist, wants to live: "If a person knows and loves God, he never doubts God's existence," one of them says to Ka. "It seems to me you're not giving me an answer because you're too timid to admit that you're an atheist. But we knew this already ... Do you suffer the same pangs as the poor atheist in the story? Do you want to kill yourself?"

Pamuk's plot appears as slender embroidery around this abysmal background. By attempting to understand both the Islamist opposition and the repressive military, Ka unwillingly becomes a double agent. He wins the girl, who as it turns out was the mistress of the Islamist Marlboro Man "Blue", and then loses the girl when his duplicity comes to light. The local military stages a bloody coup in order to prevent an Islamist victory in forthcoming elections. The confrontation between the secularist military and the Islamists plays out in a grotesque piece of public theater. Ka, who has written nothing for years, writes a series of inspired poems, none of which Pamuk chooses to share with his readers. Ka returns to Frankfurt and eventually is shot down in the street by one or another of the sides he offended during his visit to Kars.

Absence of actual poetry in a novel whose apparent subject is the reawakening of the national muse under crisis cannot be dismissed as mere post-modern irony. Like the city of Kars itself, the novel Snow leaves one with the impression that there is no there there; it is the Kafka-like meandering of characters trapped in a malign labyrinth with no way out but self-destruction. If Pamuk's metaphor for modern Turkey holds true, Iraq will not be the greatest of its worries during the next several years.

Snow by Orhan Pamuk. Faber and Faber Ltd, August 2004. ISBN: 057121830X. Price: 17 pounds (US$31.85), 448 pages.

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Aug 24, 2004

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