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A Novelist’s Novel: Snow by Orhan Pamuk

Most of the events in Snow by Orhan Pamuk, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, take place over the space of a few days, but they are described and commented on by an (at first) unknown narrator from a distance of four years in the future. A Turkish poet known only as “Ka” returns to Istanbul, the city of his youth, after twelve years of political exile, and impulsively decides, on the suggestion of a friend, to travel for days through a blizzard out to the impoverished, backwards border city of Kars in a far-off corner of the country, where the unending snow almost immediately makes the roads impassible. Ostensibly Ka has gone there to report on a recent spate of suicides of local Islamic girls, who are being forced to remove their headscarves for school, but Ka is actually more interested in finding a former classmate there, İpek, whom he remembers as being beautiful, and he is ready to fall in love with someone from the time of his youthful happiness.
The events that happen in this time out of time while Kars is snowed-in are surreal. People are shot, Ka is followed, plots are hatched and carried out. Newspaper reports of events are printed before the events occur; the line between what is real and what is staged gets increasingly blurry. The melancholic Ka, though thoroughly Westernized, is drawn to the fervent radicalism of the Islamic fundamentalists in Kars, gets caught in the clash of religious and secular cultures. Poems come to Ka whole-cloth, as if divinely inspired, during his short stay there, and they seem to him all together to encapsulate the whole of his life, somehow making sense of it.
Ka is described near the beginning of the book this way:

Ka, you see, was one of those moralists who believe that the greatest happiness comes from never doing anything for the sake of personal happiness.

The whole book is blanketed by Ka’s melancholy and guilt for any happiness he feels. Ka is racked with guilt and pessamistic about the future almost all of the time, but he has moments of pure happiness in Kars and experiences an artist’s joy from the perfectly formed poems he is able to write. The reader feels muffled and distanced from Ka, not only by Ka’s trancelike state but also by the narrator of the story, a friend of Ka’s, who painstakingly and conscientiously reconstructs events from Ka’s notes and later conversations, but doesn’t try to place the reader at the immediate scene.
Snow is an intense read, along the lines of a classic Russian novel, with its tortured souls agonizing over how to act and where their political, national, religious, family, and personal loyalties should lie (i.e. how they should live) while at the same time they watch TV, eat dinner, and go about their daily business along with everyone else.

Snow
Pamuk, Orhan
Translated by Maureen Freely
0-375-70686-0, paperback
Vintage Books (Random House)
2005 (original English translation, Knopf, 2004)

Disclosure: I read Snow from a public library copy (two weeks overdue) as part of the 2012 TBR Pile Challenge laid down by Roof Beam Reader.
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Better Than Medical School: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese is much longer, but much, much better, than The Kite Runner. Cutting for Stone and The Kite Runner were both books I read only because so many people asked me if I had, because I’m abysmally ignorant about politics and world history, and felt that my ignorance about an unfamiliar setting like Ethiopia or Afghanistan would make it harder to get immersed in the story. Also, the title Cutting for Stone made me think of stonemasons (BO-O-O-RING) when it really refers to surgery, as in bladder stones.
Cutting for Stone is a big novel that’s a good choice for a book club read, because it is packed with discussable subjects, including the exotic setting of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia (pronounced by natives as “Ethyo-pya”, not “Eee-theee-op-eee-ya”); political upheavals; terrorism; hospitals as institutions; doctors as professionals and as people; emigration and foreignness; how the culture of medicine compares from one country to another or one hospital to another; twin-ness and family; the many mystical moments in the story, and the meanings the author has layered into the narrative.
Cutting for Stone is essentially the story of Marion Stone, who becomes estranged from his twin brother, Shiva, and throws himself early into the study of medicine, planning to become a surgeon, as they go from conjoined babies who had to be surgically separated at birth and who slept together head to head as boys, into identical-looking teenagers with utterly distinct talents, personalities, and ease of being in the world. Marion and Shiva (like the author himself) are raised by Indian doctors in Ethiopia. Their adoptive parents, Hema and Ghosh, work and live at the run-down Missing Hospital. The title Cutting for Stone comes from the Hippocratic Oath, but also refers to Thomas Stone, the hospital’s third doctor for many years – the surgeon-father whose absence looms large over Marion’s childhood and whose presence in Addis Ababa is known only by the sons he left behind and the medical knowledge he passed on to Marion’s adoptive parents who then passed it on Marion and Shiva.
This would have been a very different book if brilliant, graceful, spiritual Shiva had been the one narrating – piecing together the pasts of their  absent parents and adoptive parents, guessing others’ thoughts and parsing their actions, while making his way through life – but Shiva would not have felt the need to write the story. Where Marion plans and works ever harder at his studies, Shiva succeeds effortlessly at everything but doesn’t seem to notice. Marion says of himself, as an adult surgeon, in the book’s prologue:

“…I am not known for speed, or daring, or technical genius. Call me steady, call me plodding; say I adopt the style and technique that suits the patient and the particular situation and I’ll consider that high praise….Knowing when not to operate, knowing when I am in over my head, knowing when to call for a surgeon of my father’s caliber–that kind of talent, that kind of “brilliance,” goes unheralded.”

This would have been a very different book if brilliant, graceful, spiritual Shiva had been the one narrating – piecing together the pasts of their  absent parents and adoptive parents, guessing others’ thoughts and parsing their actions, while making his way through life – but Shiva would not have felt the need to write the story. While Marion plans and works ever harder at his studies, Shiva succeeds effortlessly at everything but doesn’t seem to notice. Throughout his adolescence and long years of medical training, Marion is uncomfortable in his own skin and prickly by nature. Although he struggles to find a mystical communion with his mother through her few belongings, his nature leads him to observe and describe his life clinically. As a reader, I also felt like a detached observer and wasn’t gripped by the novel until close to the end. Only a few of the other characters come fully to life. This may have been the author’s intention, but I found myself wishing for more fully-drawn characters and that Marion would get a life. Also, be forewarned, if you tend towards queasiness, the descriptions of surgeries are long and very detailed.
Cutting for Stone is a good novel, well worth reading, that will appeals to a variety of people, and would be great for a book discussion group.
This is the first book completed for my TBR Pile Challenge. I was given a friend’s copy of the book to get me to read it, and now I can tell her I finally did!

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