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Last June, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the Turkish government’s decision to ban head scarves in schools. The decision, a victory for the state, by no means put an end to the controversy. A movement to make Turkey an Islamic state has been under way for many years now, and no court decision is likely to stop it. Of course, a glance at how much foreign-aid money this country is willing to pour into Turkey shows just how much the West would like to.

One need only pick up Orhan Pamuk’s mournful novel Snow to understand how dangerous an issue this is in Turkey today. Set between 1999 and 2001, Pamuk’s tale revolves around the suicides of three teenage Islamic girls. Islamic clerics blame their deaths on the government, because it punished the girls for wearing head scarves at school. Secularists argue that the girls were just depressed and did what teenagers sometimes do.

The truth, no doubt, lies somewhere in the middle, and that’s what the novel’s protagonist, a Turkish poet named Ka, begins to discover on a trip to the remote border village of Kars. His journey echoes a journey made there in 1829 by the Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin, back when Kars was known as an impregnable fortress and Russian troops were trying to storm it. Seeking out experience of war and heroism, Pushkin got so excited he rode into battle with the Russians as if he were an essential part of the cavalry.

Except for this bit of warrior pride, Ka has quite a bit in common with the Russian poet. Turkey has become so divided that out in the hinterlands of Kars, even though Ka’s passport says he is a Turkish national, people view him, like Pushkin, as an outsider, a Westerner, not one of them. (Much is made of the German-made coat that he wears throughout the novel.) Also like Pushkin, Ka has come to Kars for a romantic reason. His is more personal, though: He is infatuated with a woman who lives there, and he wants to track her down.

Reading Snow can be a disconcerting experience, because the reader’s attention and Ka’s are so often at odds. Ka drifts through town in a somnolent haze, dazzled by a heavy snowstorm, mooning over his crush. As the flakes drift down, muffling gunshots across town, he wanders into tearooms to jot down poems before they dissolve like snowflakes on his jacket sleeve. Something is beginning to happen, perhaps even a coup, but Ka has his mind elsewhere—on poetry, on the woman. Maintaining distance, obviously, is his forte.

But eventually, even Ka realizes his resolve is being tested. He witnesses the assassination of a government minister and the death of a sweet young radical whose future he was beginning to care about. Although neither event stops him from writing his poetry, Ka begins to wake up. He notices he is not in a bubble of artistic remove. While some of the people greet the poet as a great eminence, others are threatening. The warrior spirit is still alive in the town once infamous for its fortress.

It’s not hard to sense that Pamuk is using himself as a model with Snow; Ka’s biography, down to the books he read growing up and the Proustian atmosphere of his home, makes him sound quite a bit like the intellectual, cultured Pamuk, as does his poetry, which Pamuk has re-created with tongue-in-cheek proficiency.

One can also see why Pamuk should single himself out so. His first novel to be published in the United States, The White Castle, read like a fantasy about the unconscious. His second, The Black Book, was a murky, noir-inspired urban masterpiece about a man looking for his wife in Istanbul; it had more postmodern games in it than a graduate-school cafe discussion.

With his next two books, Pamuk began to tack toward the political, but always through his own erudition. The New Life told the story of a student whose life changed the day he read a book; as it turns out, the book shapes its readers into followers and then some of them wind up dead. My Name is Red used every narrative trick in Pamuk’s book to tell the story of a group of famous artists in 16th-century Istanbul gathered together to illustrate a book intended to celebrate the sultan. One of the artists dies, and then off we go into yet another labyrinth of Pamuk’s construction, trying to find out who did it and why.

By contrast, Snow is much more straightforward, at least on the surface, and watching its gentle, self-absorbed protagonist get in over his head is a compelling experience. How do you explain Islamic extremism? How do young boys become willing to die so that their nation can become an Islamic state?

Knowing that he must maintain at least the pretense of journalism to remain in Kars, Ka sets out to answer these questions. He interviews the families of the head-scarf girls, as they are called. He talks to the boys who became infatuated with them and the Islamic leaders inflamed by their deaths. With the help of a philosophical young boy he meets on the street, Ka visits a dashing, mysterious Islamic fundamentalist named Blue. Like many other characters in this book, Blue wants there to be an Islamic Turkey, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen.

Snow is a talky book, and the sections in which Ka interviews radicals are its most loquacious. Pamuk’s characters do not so much state opinions as tell tales. These strange, slightly skewed stories proliferate and nest in one another like Russian dolls. The book has two climaxes; both take place at theaters during the production of political plays.

Writing about issues that affect his country in a quintessentially Western form puts Pamuk in a bind: How Western can Pamuk seem to be without appearing to give a history lesson? How much Turkish history can he reference without alienating his Western readers? As if he is trying to appease both sides, Pamuk has filled the novel with dozens of miniature stories, in the Turkish mode. The resulting prose jangles and jumbles; reading it is sometimes like coming across a familiar household item in a market halfway across the world.

Snow’s competing narratives, like the country it unfolds in, are full of sacrifice, martyrdom, and revenge. The reader caroms off into one of these alternate story lines for five to eight pages only to return, groggy, to the central saga, of Ka’s transforming consciousness—and to the snow, which keeps drifting down, hushing the city’s unquiet, conjuring up Ka’s childhood memories.

This is Pamuk’s fifth book to be translated into English, and it is also his fifth translator. Maureen Freely seems to have spun the finest weave from Pamuk’s prose. She translates in language that respects both Pamuk’s needs and the reader’s. She also understands Pamuk’s characteristic ironic remove. This is especially important here, because the book’s cinematic pans away from the political turmoil need to capture both a city and a man being literally—and lyrically—buried in snow, becoming even more cut off from the wider world:

They moved slowly through the city’s empty white streets. The dashboard of the army truck was covered with indicator dials, but none of them was working; because the cab was high off the ground Ka could see into the handful of houses whose curtains were open. Television sets were on everywhere, and for the most part the city of Kars had drawn its curtains and turned in on itself. It was as if they were driving through another city altogether; as the windshield wipers went about their monotonous work, it seemed to Ka that the dreamlike streets, the old Baltic-style houses, and the beautiful snow-covered oleander trees had cast a spell bewitching even the driver and his hook-nosed companion.

Alternating between the snowstorm’s hush and philosophical conversations reminiscent of Dostoevski’s work, Snow proves a surprisingly gripping read. And, of course, a timely one. Pamuk has claimed in interviews that he is not a political writer, but he will have difficulty defending that position with Snow, which dramatizes many of the issues facing the Middle East today, from the debate over religion’s role in government to the importance of the military to the blending of propaganda with education.

It would be nice to have the pleasure of reading the book not as the political novel it certainly is, but simply as a profound work of art. You sense that is Pamuk’s ambition: to be seen as an artist, not a cultural mediator. Then again, you’re drawn back to one of his epigraphs, from Stendhal: “Politics in a literary work are a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert, a crude affair though one impossible to ignore.”CP