The plot of the novel is, in general, a regional one. So to say, a typical story of oppression, social tensions, conflicts of cultures (western vs. eastern; although for us Indians, both Turks and Europeans form west), influence of politics on cultural values (and vice versa, too), ethics, ethnicity, broken hearts, unsaid affection, debates over religious stuff and anarchism. In a way this much is more than enough for a clobbering novel and perhaps a movie too.
However, what makes this book special is the manner in which it is written, The author has the art of striking the balance in sensitive limning of each of such emotions and the realistic analysis of the situation. On one side, he depicts the central character “Ka” as if he (the author) himself has lived Ka’s life, and on the other, he never lets you fall in the trap of emotional melodrama (perhaps this is what Bertolt Brecht calls alienation).
It is snowing when Ka arrives in the small town of Kars, and the snow continues to fall, cutting off the town from the rest of the world. There is tension there: an upcoming mayoral election, the struggle between religion and secularism, a heavy-handed police presence. The conflict between Islam -- and, for example, the right of girls to go to school wearing head-scarves -- and the secular society the government has imposed causes the most problems; it is also an explanation for why the girls are killing themselves.
Ka is also racked by self-doubt -- and god-doubt, as the question of his atheism constantly arises. Resurgent Islam doesn't accept half measures, however: Ka is warned:
"If you want to save your skin, I would advise you to increase your faith in God at the earliest opportunity. It won't be long, I fear, before a moderate belief in God will be insufficient to save the skin of an old atheist. "
Even when he thinks he believes, the artist Ka clearly has a different conception of godliness, as he is reminded by one of the Islamic leaders when he describes it:
"Before I got here, I hadn't written a poem in years," he said. "But since coming to Kars, all the roads on which poetry travels here have reopened. I attribute this to the love of God I've felt here."
"I don't want to destroy your illusions, but your love of God comes out of Western romantic novels," said Blue. "In a place like this, if you worship God as a European, you're bound to be a laughingstock. Then you cannot even believe you believe. You don't belong to this country; you're not even a Turk anymore. First try to be like everyone else. then try to believe in God."
The conflict is everywhere: even Ipek's family, which runs the hotel where Ka is staying, is half-torn, as Ipek's sister Kadife is active in the Islamist movement and a strong believer, while Ipek's marriage broke up over her husband's embrace of Islam and his unacceptable (to her) demand that she wear a head-scarf।
A locally televised performance, at which Ka also reads one of his poems, goes catastrophically (and surreally) wrong, leading to a mini-coup and curfew, and a further clamp-down on the Islamists -- who, however, have much local support. The city remains cut off -- for a few days a world unto itself -- and the conflict continues, its many players as active as ever. Ka, meanwhile, is pushed back and forth between them, unable to extricate himself -- while all the while pursuing Ipek.
There is much discussion of the proper course of action. Tolerance is shown by individuals, but seems almost impossible to put into practise, as each force seeks to impose its own absolutism (symbolized by the head scarf, but obviously going much further). Each side, too, is undermined from within: suicide is a grievous sin, while the arbitrary show of force by those in power has little to do with actual secular ideals (and show little respect for the rights of individuals).
Art is central to the novel, and two theatrical performances -- each involving at least one shooting -- are the centrepieces of the book. In truly dramatic fashion, revolution is practised on the stage (though the resonance -- as described -- isn't quite as strong as one might imagine). Then there is Ka, who is able to write poetry again: none of the poems are reproduced here, but the genesis of each is carefully noted and often described in some detail; there is even an index at the end of the book, of "The order in which Ka wrote his poems".
It is the desire to write a book about these poems that leads the narrator -- an alter-Orhan Pamuk, and longtime friend of Ka's -- to tell this story। The presentation is unusual, the narrator at the fore in certain chapters, acknowledging that he writes this years after the events and describing his research in Germany and Turkey on the trail of Ka, while elsewhere disappearing entirely and presenting the story as it happens, as if he had witnessed all the events. He reveals some of what happened before he describes it -- Ka's fate, for example --, an odd approach that takes some of the suspense away and yet also serves to focus attention more on the why, revealed only when the events are allowed to unfold.
Snow is a book about the difficulties faced by a nation torn between tradition, religion, and modernization. Set in the farthest east of Turkey, the locals are certain that in Western eyes they're all considered ignorant yokels. They suffer from a dreadful inferiority complex and a need to prove themselves to counter that. Religion is the easiest crutch to rely on (and, in the case of this religion, one that conveniently scares the hell out of the infidels, of course). The struggle is not only with the West, however, but with the strong tradition of secularism in Turkey itself. As one character says:
"To play the rebel heroine in Turkey you don't pull off your scarf, you put it on."
In Snow Pamuk effectively portrays these difficulties, and the many ambiguities in contemporary Turkish life -- there's little that's simply black and white here -- but the book loses steam about halfway through (or bogs down in the snow, which there's an awful lot of here). There's a great deal of dialogueS; Ka's uncertain position -- he's not entirely sure where he stands -- makes him even more of an odd man out, and after a while one longs for more certainty, rather than -- as it seems to become -- less and less. There's also quite a bit of negotiation, as people are asked to do certain things in exchange for other things, but the uneven playing field generally does not lead to satisfying (or at least hoped for) results; that's perhaps realistic, yet not entirely satisfying for the reader. Positions -- especially the locals' inferiority complex vis à vis the West -- are also occasionally too simply presented.
The elements of the book -- even the dominant snow -- are often creative and clever. From the beginning of a science fiction novel written by one boy to the complex affair between Ka and Ipek to the shadow of the suicides hanging over the entire story, Pamuk offers much that impresses and moves the reader -- but his hold is ultimately also unsure. He tries just that bit too much and too hard, and he can't quite sustain it.