The Superfluous Man as Disillusioned Progressive in Orhan Pamuk’s Kars

I enthusiastically read Orhan Pamuk’s Snow (Kars) upon noticing a particular trait in the protagonist early on in the novel, the familiar syndrome of “superfluousity” as already diagnosed many times already by various literary works, most notably by my favorite classical Russian fictionists Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov.

The superfluous man, world-weary and incapable of fulfilling anything in spite of all his sterling qualities, often comes from the intellectual and pampered middle classes. He is the alienated youth or the jaded middle-aged man who lost the idealism of his younger years.

This figure is embodied in the novel by the poet Kerim Alakusoglu or Ka in short, who just back from exile in Frankfurt, sets out to write about the suicides by women and girls in the northeastern Turkish city of Kars. Ka

listened to mothers who were in tears because their sons were out of work or in jail, and to bathhouse attendants who worked twelve-hour shifts in the hamam without earning enough to support a family of eight, and to unemployed men who were no longer sure they could afford to go to the teahouse because of the high price of a glass of tea. These people complained and complained about the unemployment rate, their bad luck, the city council, and the government, tracing their every problem to the nation and the state.

These girls, Ka discovers, are protesting the prohibition of the wearing of headscarves in their university. But documenting this is not Ka’s real aim. Ka, it turns out, is more interested in his former college schoolmate and love Ipek.

Finding little purpose in life, the superfluous man whiles away his time on the most mundane predicaments. Politics are anathema to this figure. Causes are always-already lost in advance in his mind. Confronted by social unrest and even more intense repression of the toiling masses by the ruling classes, he recoils into passive acceptance of the status quo.

But Ka’s return to the City of Kars and his reintegration with the sorry realities of his abandoned homeland also begins to affect him. It starts to clash with the cynicism that he has internalized in exile. With the roads cut off from the rest of Turkey due to heavy snow, Kars becomes the perfect place for Ka to play the flaneur. It is here that Ka explores Turkey through his encounters with lovely characters that include Blue, an eloquent and handsome Islamist extremist, Sunay, a theatre actor-manager who leads the coup, and Serdar Bey, a publisher who writes news items and releases them even before they occur.

As Ka gets sucked into a whirlpool of violence following the staging of Sunay’s coup, Ka’s passionate love affair with Ipek drags him to the center of the storm as Ipek’s sister Kadife is romantically involved with Blue whose Islamist terrorist network forms the main target of the coup. Ipek herself was once Blue’s mistress.

At the same time, it also heightens his longing for escape: “Happiness is finding another world to live in, a world where you can forget all this poverty and tyranny. Happiness is holding someone in your arms and knowing you hold the whole world.” He puts all his hopes on bringing Ipek back to Europe with him.

Ka pursues his affair with Ipek. But his happiness remains short-lived. Out of jealousy, Ka betrays Blue to the military contrary to his promise to the two sisters. Standing true to his belief that “in a brutal country like ours where human life is cheap, it’s stupid to destroy yourself for the sake of your beliefs,” it is ultimately his anguished conviction that life is not about principles but happiness that sealed his fate.

If you’ve been happy too long, you become banal. By the same token, if you’ve been unhappy for a long time, you lose your poetic powers… Happiness and poetry can only coexist for the briefest time. Afterward either happiness coarsens the poet or the poem is so true it destroys his happiness. I’m terrible afraid of the unhappiness that could be waiting for me in Frankfurt.

Ka does return to Frankfurt alone a broken man, spurned by Ipek and tortured by his memories. His only output from the brief sojourn in Kars are 19 poems that he wrote there. But Ka was ultimately killed by young Islamists who also took away the green notebook containing the only copy of these poems. The only traces of his poems are Ka’s handwritten diary that explain the circumstance of their writing.

In this novel, Pamuk situates the figure of the superfluous man in modern-day Turkey. Continuing the latest link in the chain, Ka embodies the latest mutation of this type in the person of the disillusioned radical progressive who is also a hopeless romantic.

Early in his youth, Ka had firmly believed that there could be no higher honor than to die for an intellectual political cause or for what he had written. By his thirties, he’d seen too many of his friends and classmates tortured for the sake of foolish, even malign principles…

Having equated “havoc” with the practice of “lofty ideas,” Ka “deliberately distanced himself from them,” and thus failed to see as Slavoj Žižek had that “after one fails, one can go on and fail better, while indifference drowns us deeper and deeper in the morass of imbecilic Being.”

Pamuk’s Snow becomes an allegory of the tragedy of indifference, of how, as Alain Badiou puts it, “whoever is not practically internal to the rebellion against the reactionaries, knows nothing, even if he theorizes.” In the words of Kadife, “if you don’t have any principles, and if you don’t have faith, you can’t be happy at all.” ■



  1. I’m skipping your review for now. I plan to read this book sometime (if I made it, my first impression on a few pages was an all-too-precious prose) and go back here later.

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