We read T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” in my second literature class at Gonzaga. More than a few of my classmates admitted that they had only the barest understanding of what was happening in the poem, but they liked it nonetheless. Maybe it was the rhythm of “Please, hurry up, please,” or the imagery of waves crashing against the shore that caught their attention. I don’t know. I thought it was a garbage position to take. How can you claim to enjoy something but fail to understand it, especially something as rigorous as that poem? Since reading Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, though, I think I can understand them.
First, the Snow I read was not entirely what Pamuk intended. I read a translation from the original Turkish. No matter the skill of Maureen Freely, no doubt a great deal of the wordplay and allusions were lost in the process.
Second, a review in Harper’s called it a “political novel.” I have to agree with that as there are constant references to Turkey’s history of coups and a clear concern with the nation’s current struggle between secularism and popular Islam, but these are topics I am not well prepared to encounter as my knowledge of Turkey and its history begins with the might of the Ottoman Empire’s army and ends with the emergence of Atatürk.
Third, in his review, John Updike draws connections between Snow and the works of Kafka, Joyce, Calvino and six other seminal figures of the Western literary canon. Of those referenced, I had read only Mann and Dostoevsky and not even the referenced works. I wasn’t even well placed to understand its literary significance, but I enjoyed Snow nonetheless.
No, I loved it. It’s the best novel I’ve read so far this year. It was just so great in everything. The evocation of the city of Kars and its teahouses that no longer sold coffee because the unemployed customers couldn’t afford it. The sense of surreality as the city is isolated for days by a freak snowstorm and Ka meets the city’s powerful. The rich cast of characters concerned with politics and faith and their shadows. The plays and poems within the novel and the power of art and theater. The structure of the gradual reveal of the narrator and his own passions and hopes. It’s amazing. I would be happy if I once wrote something that came within a stone’s throw of Snow’s success at every level.
I find this incredibly hopeful that I can enjoy something without understanding it in its entirety. It invites later returns and promises new responses then and opens up so many other works.
2 years ago