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A Poet Returns to Turkey in 'Snow'

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Western and Mideastern values collide in a book commentator Andrei Codrescu picked up recently. It's by Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk and it's called Snow.

ANDREI CODRESCU: In Snow, a poet returns to his native Turkey after years of exile in Germany. In the '70s, he had been a leftist student who managed to escape before being arrested. In his return nearly two decades later, he finds out that the new radicals of young Islamists are burning with revolutionary passion just as he did.

It's a different kind of passion, though. The Marxist faith of the young poet was not that far removed from the secular rule instituted in Turkey by the army. Both Marxism and the Westernizing imposed by the military are connected to the European enlightenment.

The new radicals are enthralled by God, by Islam and by tradition. The poet does not condescend to the new radicals. On the contrary, he is attracted to their youth and the desire for purity and sacrifice. They remind him of his own, but the devil is in the details.

A number of young women in the town of Cars(ph) have committed suicide because they weren't too ostensibly allowed to attend school wearing the traditional headscarf. The symbol of the young Islamists have deemed worth dying for turns out to be a cover for other ills.

Mistreatment at the hands of fathers and husbands, poverty, unemployment. The media and the police come in for close examination too. The media makes the suicides a cause celebre, prompting other unhappy young women to consider suicide. Police repression and army rule in Turkey, intended for decades to stem the spread of radical Islam, come in for their share of blame.

But interestingly enough, the two constant elements that link everyone in the small town are sexual repression and television. The young people are trying to resist what is an overwhelming wave of sexual images produced by the televisions they never stop watching and by the cult of movie stars whose every gesture is familiar to them.

One imagines that left to their own devices, these young people would eventually find the balance between their beliefs and the modern world. But that is exactly what no one is willing to do. The state forbids the symbols of Islam, television mocks them, the army invalidates their elected officials and shoots some of the students in cold blood.

In Pamuk's world, modern Turkey is a hopeless mess drifting inevitably toward an Islamic state, brought about by a comedy of tragic errors. The poet tries to stay out of the mess in the name of an abstract ideal he calls poetry, but he's a modern, Western-educated poet who is far from understanding the sentimental and cliché-filled poetry of tradition.

The young are driven by sentiment, while cynical and power-hungry interests use them for cannon fodder.

NORRIS: Andrei Codrescu is a professor of English at Louisiana State University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.