By Orhan Pamuk
Translated into English by Maureen Freely
Published by Vintage International
Published in 2005
I read this book as part of an international bookcrossing ray and was not paid for this review.
This book took me a long time to get through. It was like walking along a street covered in snow - beautiful, enchanting, fraught, slow going and hard work all at once. It was one of those books that demanded time and attention, not something that could be quickly read and put aside. It was determined to tell me the story, sit me firmly down in the tea houses of Kars, lean in uncomfortably close and make sure I heard every single word. And I did, but at the end of it I have this horrible grasping feeling that I haven't managed to fully understand the effect of it all...
Kerim Alakuşoğlu, or Ka as he is known throughout the majority of the novel, is a Turkish-born poet who has been in political exile in Frankfurt, Germany for the last 12 years. He has come to the city of Kars in Turkey investigate the suicides of a few members of a group of Muslim girls who are known as the Head Scarf Girls on account of their insistence that they be able to wear head scarves in accordance to their religious beliefs. The reason for their suicides is unclear - some claim it is because they are being banned from education unless they remove their head scarves, others say it is because of lost love affairs. One thing is clear though: these girls are falling between the cracks of male rhetoric. For all the speculation, these girls remain in death as they were in life, without a voice that can be clearly heard.
Despite this being his primary declared motive for coming to Kars, Ka also has an ulterior motive - to win the heart of his ex-classmate İpek whom he has heard is now divorced. He arrives in Kars in the midst of a terrible snowstorm that blocks the roads and effectively isolates the city from the restof the world. What plays out is one part political intrigue mixed with two parts ugliness of human nature sprinkled liberally with hope beyond reason.
The most striking thing was contrasting of the "West" with Islam and what happens when one gets caught in the middle ground. This issue sure isn't a new one but has been a hot button topic for the last decade since September 11th. Turkey is an interesting place as it is often referred to the place where the West meets East. Throughout the novel the tug-o-war between the two is clearly felt as one tries to dominate the other... or more specifically, the ways of the West try to come in and modernise and update the 'backward' ideas of the East/Islam. This is an idea I've long been uncomfortable with, the idea that we in the West have got it all sorted and the rest of the world should sit up and listen and adopt our ideas. Sure, we have some good ideas but not all concepts are universally applicable. Not everyone wants what we have. Who is anyone to assume that changing years of established culture, thinking and education is necessarily a good thing? All of these questions are far too big for just one blog post and my intention isn't to answer them anyway. My point is that this novel looks into these ideas and gives everyone pause for thought, which is one of the best things any novel can do: take on the big issues and force the reader to re-evaluate their own position.
If you're feeling in the mood for a great read that will challenge you mentally and politically and you have some time to dedicate to it, this is definitely a great book. It's one of those books I will still be thinking about in years to come.
Have you read a book recently that challenged you politically? What was it and how did it challenge you?