This is the fourth book I’ve read this year that deals, at least in part, with the emotional and psychological toll that the tension between a Muslim state and the West can take on a person. The others were The Kite Runner, Persepolis, and Persepolis 2.

I’m not sure why I’ve read so many books about this lately. I think it helps me frame some similar points of tension here in the US because it takes the clash of liberal/conservative or secular/sacred to the often violent extreme. And the violent extreme is where things certainly went in this book.

This book was written by Orhan Pamuk, a winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature. Pamuk was born, raised, and still lives in Istanbul, Turkey. The book was, of course, written in Turkish. Historically, I’ve had to labor through translated works of fiction and this was no different. Much of the wry humor goes over my head and I don’t have big chunks of back-story that would help me understand what’s going on. I stayed with it though and it ended up being rewarding.

It’s about a poet/intellectual named Ka who fled Turkey for political exile in Germany for over a decade and now finds himself in a small, isolated town in Turkey called Kars. I’m still not completely sure why Ka went to Kars. I got the feeling deep down that he was in Kars because he was disgruntled with his so-called secular life in Europe, and this trip to Kars gave him a chance to do some soul-searching. To hear Ka tell it, he says that he went there to write an article about young Muslim women who were committing suicide because they were not allowed to wear head scarves. Many in town say that Ka was there because the most beautiful woman in the world and a former acquaintance of Ka’s, Ipek, was there. Whatever the reason, he rolls into town and immediately the whole town begins to take his measure.

I mean the whole town, and some out-of-towners. It’s difficult to keep track of the people he meets and I spent a lot of time confused. I wasn’t ready for the fantastical nature of all the characters. For example, there’s a strange traveling theatre troop that helps stage a coup in town during a massive snow storm, the editor from the local paper writes the news before it happens, and a group of religious high school boys act as counsel and informer to Ka. These are just a few of the quirky characters. Yes, it’s tough to follow!

As the book dragged on, I started to sort the characters out and the last third of the book became easier to follow. Eventually, Ka falls in love with Ipek and hatches a scheme to get her to marry him and move back to Germany so they can watch American movies and eat sausages at the local cafes. But before he can do that, he has to strike a bargain with the leaders of the coup to stay alive. In return, he must broker an agreement between a terror suspect, his lover’s sister, the temporary military junta, and others. As you might expect, no good comes of this and it ends tragically. Ka does not get the girl and he ends up getting shot a few years later in Frankfort.

Just not a lot of fun for the most part. But there is a lot of highly politicized and relevant conversation about Islam, intellectuals, small towns, Europe, Turkey, God, poetry, love, happiness, and personal fulfillment. It was thought provoking, but the development of the plot and main characters confused me. In fact, my level of confusion and disorientation was on par with my reading of Neuromancer, but I liked this book more.