Among the many people Ka meets as he explores the little teahouses, back streets, and institutions of Kars are a newspaper editor who writes the news before it happens, a sheikh, an Islamist teenager who wants to become a science-fiction writer, a terrorist, the woman he becomes obsessed with and her headscarf-wearing sister, and of course members of the ever-present secret police. Kars is a backwater in eastern Turkey, no longer on important trade routes, but it exhibits the political and social conflicts of Turkey: between state and society, between the secular and the religious, between Western and local, between provincial and metropolitan ...
While Kars is shut off from the outside world, a coup is carried out by elements of the military led by the leader of a theatrical troupe, who has acted left-wing heroes defending Ataturk's legacy for so long he has the part down pat. The resulting events are often farcical — a highlight here is a (supposedly) secret meeting in a hotel room in which ex-communists, socialists, Islamists and Kurds come together to try to draft a statement against the coup — but at the same time deadly.
Ka himself is almost amorally uninterested in politics, but he is forced to participate both to protect himself and to achieve the marriage he wants and his dream of a future life. He can't control either his jealousy, which prevents him thinking rationally about what he is doing, or his poetic inspiration, which keeps seizing him without warning and leaving him scribbling in his notebook, oblivious to the world.
Initially the narrator of Snow seems omniscient and external, but is soon revealed to be a friend — a novelist called Orhan — who is reconstructing Ka's life after his death several years later. At first we know hardly anything about him, but he becomes increasingly involved — visiting Ka's digs in Frankfurt, reading his notebooks and trying to find his poems, and even visiting Kars himself and talking to the people Ka met there.
Snow is a big, ambitious novel, in which Pamuk perhaps tries to do too much. Through its broad range of characters it explores a huge range of political, religious, and social issues. It is a character study, a portrait of obsession and jealousy. And, through its narrative structure and formal links between Ka's poetry and the events around him, it probes the relationship between art and life. Pamuk holds all this together, but sometimes only with a visible effort. Snow is a highly recommended read nevertheless, especially for anyone curious about Turkey.