Feeling pleased at the wintry theme at the time, I bought Snow with Winter’s Tale — now the association with Helprin’s novel is not at all ﬂattering, but luckily they have little in common beyond cold weather. And whereas Winter’s Tale is best at the beginning, Snow felt rather tedious at the start and got better after the story was established.
Focused on a poet who goes by Ka who is currently living in exile from Turkey and is visiting the eastern city of Kars for only the second time in his life, the book is written from the perspective of “Orhan the novelist,” a friend of Ka’s who is piecing things together from his notebooks years later. Almost every major event is alluded to before it actually happens, which creates an oﬀhand suspense in a slow-paced story. Almost a third of the book is comprised of Ka’s ﬁrst full day in Kars, during which he runs around meeting people and dashes into teahouses to write poems (as James Buchan put it in his review for The Guardian: “his lyric gift returns to him with a force bordering on incontinence”).
Discovering Ka through his friend is a helpful technique since the poet is often a tad insuﬀerable. Ostensibly he has traveled to Kars to report on political conditions in the city — both the approaching municipal elections and a recent spate of suicides by women and girls aﬀected by a ban on headscarves in schools. But he has also decided he will fall in love with an old classmate who is living there and convince her to marry him and return with him to Frankfurt. Yet the pushing and pulling between secular and religious Islam strikes a chord in him and inspires him to start writing poems again. Then there is a military takeover that begins during a live telecast of a performance at the National Theatre (a character refers to it as a coup de théâtre), and Ka ends up right in the middle of various machinations, toeing the line between insider and outsider.
One of the more interesting parts of this book (and this is totally a spoiler) is the absence of the actual poems. Orhan is able to reconstruct nearly every moment surrounding the creation of the poems, aside from any actual words in them. He ﬁnds a diagram that breaks down the intrinsic structure underlying the collection of poems and knows that Ka recited some in readings he did upon returning to Germany. But the actual works remain elusive, much like Ka himself who, after all, lived many years in exile. The themes of absence and how the ever-present falling snow weaves into that atmosphere are what I appreciated most at the end of the story.