The concept of the "Turkish novel", like the Moroccan or the Egyptian novel, is one we accept without question, though it contains the germ of a controversy. The novel, as readers of Cervantes and Dickens understand it, is a European form with roots in the Renaissance, individualism and romanticism, and an awareness of its own fictitiousness. When it is used by a Turkish writer to dramatise the competing claims of European secularism and political Islam, the result, at least at the level of form, is a foregone conclusion - Europe and secularism win.
Orhan Pamuk wrestles with this ambiguity on every page of his profound and frequently brilliant new novel. Set in the 1990s, Snow presents Turkey as a nation far more unsure of its identity, and far crueller on both sides of the secular-Islamic divide, than we imagine. Pamuk's device for arranging his material recalls the allegories of writers such as Durrenmatt and Boll. His hero is a poet named Ka who, returning to Turkey after 12 years in political exile in Frankfurt, attends his mother's funeral in Istanbul, then accepts a commission to write an article about the forthcoming elections in the distant city of Kars, near the Armenian border. There has been a spate of suicides by women in the city, and the foreign press, despite local obstruction, is starting to get interested. Kars is poor, on the road to nowhere. It clings to the remnants of a grander Russian past and is uneasily caught between the secular status quo and rising Islamist parties. The thickly falling snow blankets its poverty and, to the poet's eyes, "casts a veil over hatred". It also cuts the city off within a day of Ka's arrival.
That phrase "casts a veil over hatred" is indicative of Pamuk's style and the ambiguities it expresses. Hatred is veiled, but veiling it does not resolve it. The snow of the title becomes a potent metaphor, returning Ka to "the happiness and purity he had once known as a child"; he remembers writing in a poem that "it snows only once in our dreams". Snow is beauty and it is obstacle. And blood is brightest - or blackest - against snow.
All Pamuk's characters seek stability within Turkey's fragile, undetermined identity. Generally it eludes them. All are tormented by both inner and outer uncertainties. Pamuk recognises that politics and psychology are one; this is one of his "hidden symmetries". How can people be free if the state does not free them? How can the state be free if people do not allow diversity in the body politic?
The conundrum is worked through with remarkable clarity. At a performance in the National Theatre, where Ka has performed his poem "Snow", a coup is mounted by freelance military elements and many pupils from the Islamic religious high school are killed. The soldiers' leader is Z Demirkol, an ex-communist whose participation provides another symmetry - the pardoned ex-communist becomes the protector of the secular state, while the passive poor and unemployed are won over to political Islam. The subsequent events - the brutal round-up of religious leaders and Islamist candidates, the negotiations for a truce, Ka's failed love affair - show violence and failure as the blizzard produced by illiberality and indecision.
Pamuk's modesty as a writer, his refusal to write as if he knows what is happening, is one of his finest qualities. There are episodes in this novel - such as the con-versation in a coffee shop between the director of the education institute and his assassin about the state's banning of headscarves - that illuminate the confrontation between secular and extremist Islamic worlds better than any work of non- fiction I can think of.
One of Ka's interlocutors, a theologian named Blue, complains that because the country has fallen under the spell of the west, it has forgotten its own stories. This may be true. But Pamuk shows decisively that the European novel (here superbly translated by Maureen Freely) remains a form, and a freedom, for which we have reason to be thankful.