Ka is a man on a journey who does not know where his next step will take him. He is a poet who can no longer write poetry, an atheist no longer certain of the absence of God, an observer incapable of seeing. He has outlived the reason for his exile, but has been so long away from Turkey that its cultural nuances escape him. Yet he has never learned the language of his adopted country and has spent his years in exile reciting old poetry to small audiences of ex-patriots.
It is his mother’s funeral that brings him back to Turkey, but it is on an errand for a newspaper editor that he travels to Kars. That, and love.
Kars is in Eastern Turkey, situated at a height of 1750 feet. Its winters are harsh and long and it is often isolated by snow. In fact Kars is snow in Turkish and is a shortened version of its original name, which meant snow-water for the ponds of water left by melting snow. It is an ancient city on the path between Armenia and the rest of Turkey, For more than 900 years, it has been an intermittent battleground for conquering armies of Kurds, Armenians, Russians and Turks. Pamuk frequently refers to the beautiful, empty, decaying Armenian buildings, visible reminders of one conquering wave. Mentioning these buildings is a controversial act as Pamuk is one of those who maintain the unpopular assertion that Armenian Turks met with genocide during the Crimean War at the hands of their Turkish countrymen.
Westerners have a tendency to view the east as mysterious, as if there is a veil of culture we cannot penetrate. Parmuk uses the substance of snow to symbolize that veil.
The snow of Kars enshrouds, isolates, mutes, silences. The veil at its most complete is a shroud that Islamic women wear to protect them. But the impoverished dead also wear shrouds to protect them from gazes they cannot return, and from the earth which surrounds them. We refer to things we do not understand or misunderstand as being shrouded in mystery. The greatest, most shrouded mystery is that of God by whatever name you use. The never-ending journey is the one toward understanding. The agnostic / atheist mistrusts the religious who claim to have knowledge of the nature of deity.
Snow enshrouds Ka on his journey to Kars and throughout his visit. The bus bringing Ka to Kars is the last one to arrive before the roads are closed due to the storm and though isolation due to storm may be an annual event in this remote city, it nevertheless has the effect of suspending the normal culture during Ka’s visit. Things happen when daily life is interrupted, when travel is restricted and work slows or halts altogether, when people with time on their hands look for ways to fill the time. There is a kind of constant snow in Kars and the countryside where unemployment is high. Restless men sit in tea shops, sit at the feet of holy men, join the military, ponder their unhappy plight and consider who is to blame.
In Turkey, the east meets the west and Islam meets Christianity. Urbanized Turks seem to have one foot in Europe while those further from Istanbul are inclined to fear that Europe will erase their culture.
Ka had escaped to the west (Germany) as a young man fleeing a crackdown on leftist radicals. While at university, he became an atheist which, in the eyes of many of his countrymen, marked him as an intellectual who has adopted the European/Western culture and, more importantly, as one who has rejected the Turkish/Middle Eastern culture.
The poet left his creative well in Turkey and cannot be a poet in another land. In all his years of exile he has not been able to write a single poem.
Ka is a name the poet chose for himself as a child. It is the primary initials of both his first and last names, which Ka disliked so much that he chose to use just the initials. Ka represents the life-force in ancient Egyptian religion and whether or not Pamuk named his main character for this reason, I am left with the sense that he is describing the life-force of Turkey as that of a flawed poet.
Pamuk’s Turkey is as ambivalent as Ka. Civically secular, it is also very much Islamic. Elements in Turkey have tried to maintain the separation between religion and state that Atatürk instituted as the first President of Turkey. But a significant faction in Turkey is not comfortable with this and constantly agitates for theocratic rule.
Ka’s religious ambivalence is revealed as he weeps in the presence of a holy man. He feels a yearning for Allah, but only in the holy man’s presence. Once outside of the apartment, where the faithful and the troubled come to unburden their hearts, he returns to his normal state of mind, re-entering, with some relief, the secular civic structure of Turkey. Though he is most comfortable in that secular environment, he remains wistful. Not only does a part of him exist on a spiritual level and his poetry flows out of that level, but it is possible that even as he is puzzled by them, he envies those who have no doubts.
Central to the plot is a theatre of the absurd. A coup literally staged by an aging itinerant actor and the local military corps aided by the police and the ever-present and distrusted secret police. He recognizes that Ka, as a poet and erstwhile reporter, is his best hope of immortality. He orders the poet brought into audience with him and uses him in his manipulation of events.
Snow is dialectic and the central dialogue occurs in a conversation at the Hotel Asia arranged by Ka, from which he is absent. Blue, the revolutionary accompanied by a chorus of Islamic radicals, argues with an adamant atheist, and the Islamic feminist daughter of the atheist. It is an Asian dialogue: Does commerce (social and economic) with the west contain the seeds of destruction of Asian culture. Does Turkey, by opening itself up to the ideas of the west, by embracing what the west offers, risk losing its culture, its unique identity? Will it lose God in the process? If it does not embrace the West and the EU, will it become irrelevant in the modern world? Will Turkey sink deeper into poverty? These are questions that burn under the surface, around which the dialogue dances.
Though Ka is not in the Hotel Asia, he does become entangled in this conversation because of the nature of the journalistic errand, which has brought him to Kars. It is a story of suicides of Islamic schoolgirls who have been forbidden to wear the scarf of the devout Muslim to school. What is the connection between these suicides and the edict which has banned them from wearing the scarf? An editor friend has asked Ka to make the journey to Kars and report on the phenomenon.
No one seems to know the truth about the suicides and no one seems to want to know. The young women appear to be unknowable. Their motives are hidden by the barrier of death and the lack of knowledge even their families appear to have about them, as if they are ciphers. At least one of the girls has become idealized.
Conversely, everyone in Kars knows why Ka is there. His every step, every interview is known. People seek him out and tell him that he must not believe this one or that one.
Blue is a rebel, an Islamist, fiercely opposed to secular government. He is the lover of Kadife, a young woman whose actions may have inspired the suicides. A man like Blue helps the disaffected to name who is at fault, what is at fault: the West, those who want to join the European Union and the secular state which orders that Muslim girls cannot wear scarves to school. Like everyone else with a point to make, Blue exploits the suicides. Though he is a wanted man in hiding, suspected of being behind terrorist attacks and assassinations, he demands an audience with Ka. Blue, in particular, wants to set Ka straight about the reason for the suicides, though it becomes apparent that he, himself, does not know.
Ka is also seeking love. He agrees to go to Kars not because he is intrigued by the story, but because he knows there is a recently divorced woman living there whom he knew at University. He remembers that she was very beautiful and although he was not interested in her as a youth, he becomes obsessed with her almost before he even sees her again. He pursues his obsession throughout the story. He believes that she represents his last chance at love, his last chance to avoid a lonely old age. He wants to bring her back to Germany to live with him. Ipek may symbolize Turkey and the hopelessness of a love affair with a country you can no longer call home. Ka makes love to her, believes he does love her, is almost convinced that she will love him and that she will leave with him. Ipek is nominally westernized. Her sister is Kadife (Blue’s lover). If Ipek symbolizes Turkey leaning westward, Kadife symbolizes Turkey leaning eastward. Both women appear rational and thoughtful.
In Kars, Ka writes poem after poem. Thirteen poems pour out of him almost whole. He is so focused on writing these poems down that he is distracted even occasionally from pursuing the object of his desire. Ka is removed, he is the journalist, the reporter, the observer. As an observer he is never completely involved in the scene around him. This makes him the ultimate go-between, the mediator and negotiator for the actor who is pulling the strings of the coup. But no matter how removed an observer believes himself to be, he impacts what he observes, and this Ka does in tragic ways.
Parmuk’s prose as translated by Maureen Freely is flawless, beautiful, hypnotic. He ignites a desire to know more about Turkey, to know what can be unveiled while understanding that language itself is the ultimate shroud, the guardian and container of culture.