By Orhan Pamuk. Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely

Knopf. 426 pp. $26

"Politics in a literary work are a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert, a crude affair though one impossible to ignore," Stendhal wrote. This line serves as one of the epigraphs to Snow, Orhan Pamuk's mysterious, moving and -- yes -- political new novel, which includes a scene where guns are shot into a theater audience. Firearms notwithstanding, there is nothing crude about Pamuk's subtle work. The author of seven previous novels, he has taken as his great subject the tensions between West and East, religious and secular, in his native Turkey. His most recent novel, My Name Is Red, was an ingenious, tightly crafted tale of murder among miniaturists -- artists who illuminate manuscripts -- in 16th-century Istanbul, for which he at last garnered much-deserved recognition in the United States.

Snow, which takes place in the present day, may be Pamuk's most topical novel yet. Ka, a poet from Istanbul, has returned to his native country for a visit after 12 years in exile in Germany. When Snow begins, he is on a bus en route to Kars, a mountain city in the "poorest, most overlooked corner of Turkey," at the former border of the Ottoman and Russian empires. An old friend at an Istanbul newspaper has asked him to report on the impending municipal elections as well as an epidemic of suicide among teenage girls, the latest of whom is one of the "head-scarf girls," a group of young women who have been barred from the secular university for covering their hair. In hope of reuniting with Ipek, a beautiful former classmate who now lives in Kars, Ka agrees.

Kars is a tightly wound knot of tension between secular and religious forces, and Ka's investigations lead him into encounters with all the major players, including the charismatic Blue, an "infamous Islamist terrorist" who is in hiding after issuing a death threat against a talk-show host who insulted the Prophet Muhammad; Necip, a pious student who hopes to become the world's first Islamist science-fiction writer; and Ipek's sister, Kadife, the leader of the head-scarf girls. These forces come to a head on Ka's first evening in Kars, when an acting troupe stages a classic play called "My Fatherland or My Head Scarf." At the play's climax, the heroine rips off her scarf and burns it, and the religious youths in attendance begin to riot. Soldiers storm the stage, opening fire and killing a number of the audience members.

This is the briefest possible introduction to Snow's elaborate plot, which works its way by twists and turns through numerous digressions, dialogues and genres. Pamuk's work is reminiscent of the great storytelling classics -- The Thousand and One Nights, Boccaccio's Decameron or Jan Potocki's Manuscript Found in Saragossa, with their bawdy comedy, intricate design and mystical overtones. At times Ka plays the traditional role of the trickster: In one brilliant sequence, he negotiates a statement of unity between the city's Islamist, Kurdish and socialist leaders for the sole purpose of luring Ipek's father out of the hotel where they live, so that he can make love to her. Elsewhere he is compared to a dervish: During his few days in Kars, he regains his inspiration for the first time in four years, and poems come to him as if dictated by a higher power.

The poems that Ka writes in Kars turn out to be governed by a "deep and mysterious underlying structure" similar to that of a snowflake, and the same is true of the novel itself. The deeper you read, the more the symmetries multiply. Nearly every character has a double, down to the narrator himself, who is eventually revealed to be a novelist friend of Ka's named Orhan, telling Ka's story after his death based on information gleaned from his notebooks. All these mirror images add up to create a dizzying effect, which is deepened by the snow that begins to fall on the first page of the novel and does not let up until nearly the end. Practically a character in its own right, it blankets the mean streets of Kars, shutting Ka and Ipek together in their hotel, casting its strange light in unexpected places and closing the roads to all traffic in or out, so that the city becomes a strange hothouse of nervous activity and revolutionary unrest.

This disorientation is surely Pamuk's intention. But even after the novel has come to its wrenching conclusion, the atmospheric haze is difficult to dispel. Snow has none of the tautness of My Name Is Red; its action moves thickly, at times impenetrably. Clarity is not enhanced by a tone that at times jerks wildly from knowing sophistication to faux naivete. This is a shock after the elegant control of My Name Is Red, and the non-Turkish-reading reviewer is inclined to blame the translator, who is new to Pamuk's work. Nevertheless, Pamuk's gift for the evocative image remains one of this novel's great pleasures: Long after I finished this book, in the blaze of the Washington summer, my thoughts kept returning to Ka and Ipek in the hotel room, looking out at the falling snow. *

Ruth Franklin is assitant literary editor of the New Republic.