The Black Book
The Nation, March 27 1995, v260, n12,
By Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Guneli Gun.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 400pp. $25.
One image stays with me from a visit to Istanbul
some years ago: the floor of a mosque, covered with layer after
layer, perhaps century after century, of intricately patterned rugs.
This clever cushion for the knees of the faithful seemed to symbolize
the difference between East and West, between the preservation of
a multilayered past and a tear-down, throwaway culture; between
a textured life, full of meaning and mystery, and one that's all
surface and instant gratification.
Re-examining these impressions after reading
The Black Book, an extraordinary, tantalizing novel by the Turkish
writer Orhan Pamuk, I'm embarrassed by my unconscious stereotyping,
even my easy assumptions that life must have meaning and a rug can
be something other than itself. For Pamuk delights in shredding
preconceived dichotomies-East/West, sameness/difference, community/individual,
fiction/reality, meaning/ nothingness, certainty/ambiguity--considering
them part of our universal quest for identity.
In the process--and process becomes a major
player in this book--Pamuk also challenges the ability of literature
to describe the Big Questions. Sometimes playful, sometimes angry,
he wrestles with the demon of writing, not to give logical shape
and meaning to his story but to resist that natural impulse, because
those qualities don't exist in life.
This game of mirrors in which the survival
of literature is at stake is familiar from other modern fantasists
like Italo Calvino, Jeanette Winterson, William Gass and especially
Jorge Luis Borges. But Pamuk seems more dangerous. He's like a charming,
turn-of-the-century huckster, luring literary prospectors through
a desert of mental contortion, only to leave them suddenly, without
map or sustenance, to complete the search for meaning by themselves.
That Pamuk pushes readers close to the edge
of what they are likely to accept has already been proved in his
native Turkey. In this most Westernized country of the East, The
Black Book has been both a best seller and the object of condemnation,
not only for its overwrought sentences and postmodern style but
also for its ambiguous politics and lightly mocking tone, which
have angered leftists and fundamentalists alike. (Undaunted by those
who feel threatened by his books, Pamuk has written another, just
out in Turkey, called The New Life. Apparently indebted to Dante
and to German Romanticism, it boasts a 22-year-old hero who reads
a book that changes his life. Though Turkish politics is always
at least part of the fabric of Pamuk's work, literature rather than
contemporary affairs is paramount in his latest fiction.
If one looks at Pamuk's career, this latest
terrain is a logical spot in which to find him. At 42 and with five
substantial novels to his name, he is making yet another stop on
his express train ride through different literary styles. In his
first novel, Cevdet Bey and His Sons (1982, not translated into
English), Pamuk sets out with fairly simple observations about superficial
Western influences on Turkish life. It's a work of realism executed
in nineteenth-century style, a three-generation saga about a typical
middle--class Istanbul family--rather like Pamuk's own--weakened
temperamentally by wealth and Westernization. (Pamuk's own Western
influences are strong. Educated at an American secular school in
Istanbul, he was also a visiting fellow at the University of Iowa,
and is clearly steeped in European and American classics.
Pamuk's second, more intimate novel, The Silent
House (1983), is about three siblings hanging out at their dying
grandmother's house in the chaotic summer of when rival left- and
right-wing gangs were fighting in the streets of Istanbul. It's
told in five different voices, vaguely reminiscent of Faulkner and
In his third novel, The White Castle, published
in English in 1991 to wide acclaim, Pamuk focuses even more intently
on the question of identity and how it can be described. Told as
a fairy tale or dream, it is the story of two men who look alike,
an irascible seventeenth-century Turkish scholar known as Hoja (meaning
"master") and his gentle, literature-loving, nameless Italian slave,
captured aboard ship as the novel opens.
Hoja, having learned Western engineering from
his slave, becomes obsessed with making a huge weapon for the Turkish
Sultan's military campaign in Europe. But once constructed, it gets
stuck in a swamp at the base of a gleaming white fortress in Poland,
which the Turks fail to take. Surely a statement against the abuse
of knowledge and the forceful taking of other cultures, this defeat
also reflects the real failure of the Ottoman Turks to conquer the
West in the sixteenth century, when their armies were stopped at
In The White Castle, the Turks blame the Italian.
Yet master and slave exchange clothes and identities, and Hoja (as
the Italian) takes off into the fog. Thus the Turk goes "back" to
Venice as if he were Italian and the Italian stays "home" in Turkey
as if he were Hoja, each living in the place that suits him best.
Despite much fun and double talk about East
and West--and Pamuk revels in paradoxes, opposites, doubles and
ambiguities of every sort--the unspoken reality of The White Castle
is that its protagonists possess personality traits that have little
to do with ethnic stereotypes. Hoja is outgoing, adventurous, impulsive,
awed by science and reason. The Italian is a dreamer, storyteller
and instinctive survivor. Yet they belong together. Apart, each
misses the other, as if to say, the melding of their complementary
qualities adds up to a whole person or, on a larger scale, a healthy
There is some typical Pamuk obfuscation at
the end of The White Castle, suggesting that such completeness is
not easily attained. Nevertheless we all yearn for it, he claims,
through others or within ourselves. And it is the mystery of that
yearning that looms large in Pamuk's most recent novel to be translated
The Black Book is so different in style from
The White Castle that it's almost a shock to readers of the earlier
novel. The White Castle, beautifully translated by Victoria Holbrook,
is by no means a traditional work of realism; but there is something
familiar about its urgent, almost hypnotic narrative. In the story
of the Italian's servitude and his efforts at survival, in Hoja's
plans and schemes, and in the complex emotional connection between
the two men, The White Castle has a shape we can feel at home in,
a thread of story we can follow, a warmth to which we can relate.
In The Black Book, only the starting point
feels familiar. Superficially, it's a whodunit featuring a world-weary
lawyer, Galip, who plods around Istanbul for a week in search of
his missing wife, Ruya, who's also his cousin. Galip suspects Ruya
has absconded with Jelal, her half-brother, a famous newspaper columnist
whom Galip idolized as a boy, and to whom he's sure Ruya is attracted.
But we're soon far removed from the typical detective story, as
Galip decides that the key to finding Ruya is figuring out the nature
of Jelal, and then becoming Jelal. When, through Galip's carelessness
(or intention?) Jelal is killed and Ruya along with him, Galip promises
to keep the newspaper well supplied with Jelal's old, unpublished
columns, though they're really all his own writing. Thus Galip becomes
the hero of his boyhood dreams, a writer, an accomplishment darkened
by his grief over Ruya's death. And that's about as close as Pamuk
gets to linear narrative.
For this is the mystery novel of your nightmares,
all dressed up in clues with nowhere to go. We are entering a Borgesian
labyrinth: Written in deliberately befogging, serpentine sentences
as if the book were composing itself right before our eyes--cheekily,
Pamuk even suggests he's not quite sure where the story's going--this
novel meanders, circles, weaves, goes backward, reiterates, stops
to think for a moment, remembers that it's all been said before
by other writers, real and invented, and even quotes them. This
snow machine of a book presents us with an utterly confounding blizzard
of information, complete with sinister drifts, like Galip's work
phone, which keeps dialing wrong numbers, perhaps to underscore
the evasiveness of truth.
Chapters on Galip's search alternate with Jelal's
newspaper columns, which read more like short stories, prose poems
or meditations, and reflect, as in a distorting mirror, the ideas
and actions in the other chapters. Like the detective in Borges's
"Death and the Compass," who uses rabbinical texts to track down
a murderer, Galip's quest for his missing cousins takes him along
obscure literary and historical byways. Operating again on the snowmaking
principle, these include infuriatingly dense discussions about Hurufism--an
obscure, fourteenth-century sect that believed we could find the
origin of being in letters written on our faces. There's also a
whole crew of verbose, dogmatic, usually anti-western characters
who provide some of the funniest moments in the book, like three
old columnists who talk all over each other giving Jelal advice
on writing. (Borges's presence may loom large in this book, but
the teasing, impish spirit is Pamuk's own.) There are meditations
on memory, Western influences, movie stars, leftist politics, journalism,
Sufi poets and the Sufi path of enlightenment, religion, Oedipal
rage, love, and on and on, so that the book's suspense lies largely
in the questions: When will the author get to the point, and what
will it be when he does?
Pamuk has said in interviews that he wanted
to invent a language that reflects the texture of life in Istanbul,
its maze of ancient streets, its 3,000-year history, a city divided
by the Bosporus, half in Europe, half in Asia. Straggling over seven
hills on its European side, it is connected to Asia by a twentieth-century
bridge. Certainly, as Galip wanders, we get a colorful, all-encompassing,
sometimes surreal picture of the city, right down to its movie-star
role-playing prostitutes and its pigeons. The city also reflects
life's dailiness, its careful balance of imposed form and chaos,
a necessary framing element for this story, but not the whole story.
In truth, when you crawl out from under the
weight of the dizzying circumlocutions and digressive detail--if
you have the patience to push through The Black Book's verbal haze--what
you find is a persistent strand of investigation into what it means
to be a person, and secondly, a writer.
It is human, Pamuk seems to suggest, to struggle
with mysteries such as "foreign" influences (versus Turkish character,
for example), to look inside yourself, to wonder what you are, to
long to be truly yourself. But that can also be fatally limiting.
One of the most remarkable stories in the book is told by Galip
(pretending to be Jelal) to a BBC film crew, for a program about
Turkish politics--only Galip's story is about a nineteenth-century
prince who tries to become more fully himself by getting rid of
people, books, furniture, anything that might make him want to be
someone else. Boredom sets in, but he never stops trying to clear
his head of alien matter. He envies the "stones in the desert for
just being themselves," until he dies, alone except for his scribe,
in a virtually empty room painted white.
In other words, the capacity to imitate is
an essential part of our beings. We're naturally open to influence,
change and new experience. Indeed, we need these things just as
plants need water. To resist newness is to reject the stuff of life.
Pamuk describes our yearning for this newness,
for life, for something other, as a void inside us, symbolized by
an air shaft in the old building where Galip and Jelal grew up.
This void need not necessarily be filled with sadness, an emotion
we usually associate with inner emptiness; it may also be a space
where something heroic blossoms, amid the ordinariness of life,
like Galip's finally fulfilled wish to be a writer. In fact, when
Galip tells the story of the prince, he feels triumphant. In creating,
he thinks, he has finally become himself. He is complete--a testament,
as Pamuk's books usually are, to the power of art.
Pamuk's relationship with literature is ambivalent
here, however. Early on, Galip admires Jelal's ability to give meaning
to life through stories. Later, one of Galip's columns is allegorical,
using a painting reflected in a mirror as a parable for our failure
to find ourselves through art. It's a vision also embodied in the
recurring image of Ruya ("dream" in Turkish) that torments Galip
with a sense of her unattainability and his own shortcomings.
Finally, literature pales against life's dramas
and even falls short in describing them, or so Galip intimates.
His triumph as a storyteller is cut short by news of Jelal's and
Ruya's deaths. But there is a trick here: Galip, suddenly more vivid
in the first person, urges us to avoid the passages concerned with
Ruya's murder and his grief because, he says, he doesn't have the
power to convey them. In fact, these "pitch-black pages"--in contrast
to the prince's deathly white room--buzz with life. Their simple
descriptions of ordinary tenderness, grief, loss and love are among
the most moving in the book.
So is this the true aim of literature, the
seemingly artless portrayal of events and emotion? No, not here.
For Pamuk, this final section is just one more wrestling round with
words, one more try for a miraculous melding of reality and illusion.
And for a moment, he almost succeeds. For the "I" that is Galip
merges with "I," the author, as they mouth together, "We remember
Ruya": Galip recalling the Ruya that is his dead wife and Pamuk
catching a glimpse of his "ruya," the truth about art and life.
But the reader can't help thinking it's just another trick, and
may be left wondering, What's the mystery here?
The answer, in fact, lies on every page of
the book. Toward the end, Galip says that being Jelal is no longer
a big deal, since his style is considered old-fashioned and all
he does is retell old stories anyway. But like one of Borges's metaphysical
musings--"that a system is nothing more than the subordination of
all aspects of the universe to any one such aspect"--Galip's attempts
to find Jelal, whether through politics, religion, literature, mysticism,
in signs on shopping bags, in the symbolism of the air shaft, all
represent parts subordinated to Pamuk's whole, his very attempt
to describe the search.
Like a score of other postmodern writers, Pamuk
is suggesting that there are as many ways of seeing and describing
life as there are, say, rugs in a mosque. Beneath one truth lies
another. And like the rugs, these truths, these stories, may look
different--old or new, dark or brightly colored--but they are all
made of the same stuff. And some of them, to steal a word from both
Borges and Pamuk, are astounding.
Charlotte Innes writes about books for the
Los Angeles Times and many other publications.
Tales of the city
07 July 1995
Orhan Pamuk THE BLACK BOOK Translated by Gueneli Gun 400pp.
Faber. - 0 571 16892 2
According to Turkish folklore, the Simurgh is a bird with
a name but no body. In the thirteenth-century Conference of the
Birds by the Persian poet Farid al-Din al-Attar, the Simurgh, which
nests on the equally legendary Mount Kaf, becomes the object of
a mystical quest a quest which ends in self-discovery for its participants.
The Black Book, the second of Orhan Pamuk's books to be translated
into English (it was originally reviewed in the TLS of October 12,
1990), takes a similar form, as Galip, a rather colourless lawyer,
searches for his missing wife Ruya. (Ruya is Turkish for "dream",
though it also happens to be the name of a cinema in the insalubrious
Beyoglu quarter of Istanbul; Pamuk's book is saturated with references
to dreams, of both the physiological and the celluloid kind.) The
hunt for Ruya develops into a search for her half-brother Jelal,
a flamboyant and mysterious newspaper columnist, for Galip is possessed
by the notion that his wife has gone into hiding with him. As he
follows the tracks of Jelal, Galip comes to identify with his quarry,
to the point of secretly taking over the writing of his column for
him. Unlike the mystical seekers after the truth who travel the
world in al-Attar's medieval romance, Galip's quest for the sweet
cheat gone never takes him out of Istanbul. The Black Book is, before
all, a tale of the city. When Galip visits a subterranean storehouse
of dolls, he looks on models representing Istanbul types the sort
of people tourists rarely get to know:
He saw bingo men with their draw sacks. He saw snotty, stressed-out
university students. He saw apprentice nut roasters, bird fanciers,
and treasure seekers. He saw those who have read Dante in order
to prove that all Western art and thought have been appropriated
from the East, and those who have drawn maps in order to prove that
the objects called minarets are in fact signal posts erected by
extraterrestrials, and he saw the mannequins of theological-school
students who, having been struck by a high tension cable, were jolted
into a collective blue funk which enabled them to recite daily events
which had happened some two hundred years back. In the muddy chambers,
he saw mannequins who had been teamed into groups of mountebanks,
impersonators, sinners and impostors. He saw couples who were unhappily
married, ghosts who were restless, and war dead who had bolted their
sepulchres . . . .
Istanbul is an apocalyptic city, whose inhabitants wait for
a Messiah who will bear His cabalistic (that is literary) credentials
written on His face. Galip's quest is a search for signs and meanings
in a shabby city, as he looks for omens in the activities of the
pimps and the vendors of sesame rings, in the posters advertising
Bruce Lee films, in the dusty clutter of shop windows and in the
pattern of the narrow, twisting streets. He comes to believe that
the city is a book which can be read only if one also knows that
each person has their destiny written on their face.
The Black Book is not one story but many. In this it resembles
The Thousand and One Nights, another collection of what are overwhelmingly
urban stories, and Pamuk repeatedly draws attention to the medieval
Arab story collection as a source for many of the themes and motifs
that he is working with. At several points, the reader encounters
pastiches or reheatings of old tales from the Nights, most notably
in a story, "A Lengthy Chess Game", produced by Jelal for his newspaper
column. This story is closely modelled on the tale of "The Mock
Caliph", in which Harun al-Rashid encounters his double on a boat
floating down the Tigris. The medieval Nights story (which, after
its marvellously mysterious opening, turns into a fairly conventional
Arab love story) has been reworked by several modern writers. Naguib
Mahfouz in Arabian Nights and Days (1995) turned it into a parable
about protest against political oppression. Gueneli Gun (who by
an odd twist of fate and destiny has become the translator into
English of The Black Book) gave it a transvestite and feminist slant
in her fine novel On the Road to Baghdad (1991). But Pamuk characteristically
turns the story into a metaphysical parable about the doubtful frontiers
of individual identity.
Another of The Black Book's oriental sources is the Mathnawi
Discourses, a rambling compilation of fables, stories and mystical
meditations cast in verse form by the thirteenth-century Sufi poet
Jalal al-Din al-Rumi. The Mathnawi Discourses provides Pamuk with
licence to meander, digress and be cryptic. Rumi is traditionally
credited with the formation of the Mevlevi order of Whirling Dervishes.
A later Mevlevi poet, Seyh Galip (175799), namesake of The Black
Book's protagonist, is frequently quoted. Pamuk draws on the numerous
Arab and Persian romances of star-crossed lovers and to a greater
extent on the word-playing parlour games of the Ottoman court and
There are other tales of the city which have furnished models
for Pamuk. Thomas de Quincey's opium-driven pursuit of the prostitute
Anne through the streets of London becomes, retrospectively, a prefiguration
of Galip's rather odd way of trying to track down his wife. Dante
Alighieri's transposition both of Florentine factional politics
and of his love for an unattainable woman into the after-life provides
more material for Pamuk's postmodernist game. The Hollywood B movie
has affinities with oriental tales of star-crossed lovers, while
crossword puzzles are the Western answer to the Ottoman parlour
games. It is easy to list the influences, for the author signals
them insistently. Pamuk deprecates originality, and there are several
highly original passages in the book on the unimportance of originality.
Confusingly, not only does he signal his actual borrowings, he also
cites imaginary ones. I am sure that Bottfolio and Ibn Zerhani are
made up. I am not sure about Dr Ferit Kemal, who had a Dostoevskyan
treatise on the coming of the Messiah printed in Paris and who was
acquainted with Baudelaire's Les Paradis artificiels. He ought to
The Black Book is a fiction which tackles, again and again,
the question of Turkey's shaky cultural identity, as that identity
comes under attack from European literature, hamburgers and Hollywood.
As Galip learns, even Turkish body language has been changed by
Western films. The identity of the individual is even more central
to the book. Pamuk's characters find it very difficult to be themselves.
They are always tempted to imitate, or to fake, or to be influenced.
As Jelal puts it: "I must be myself, I repeated without paying any
attention to them, their voices, smells, desires, their love, their
hate. If I can't be myself, then I become who they want me to be,
and I cannot bear the person they want me to be; and rather than
be that intolerable person they want me to be, I thought it would
be better that I be nothing at all, or not to be."
Pamuk's first (and untranslated) novel Cevdet Bey and His
Sons (1982), an account of the lives of three generations of a wealthy
Istanbul family, was a realist novel in the manner of Thomas Mann's
Buddenbrooks or Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy. The Silent House (1983)
was more modernist in its use of multiple voices and investigated
the nature of identity. Pamuk's third novel, The White Castle, his
only novel to be translated into English, was a historical fiction,
set in the seventeenth century, which was again more preoccupied
with exploring problems of cultural and individual identity than
it was with history. The Black Book has been both a bestseller and
a succes d'estime in Turkey. It success has provoked the appearance,
in 1992, of Kara Kitap: uezerine Yazilar (The Black Book: Writings
about it), a volume which includes essays by critics, maps and photographs
of the background to Pamuk's masterpiece.
"Every man resembles his times more than he does his father."
Setting Rumi, Sayh Galip, Dante and De Quincey aside, what Pamuk's
novel most closely resembles is Paul Auster's New York Trilogy.
Pamuk shares Auster's intelligence, metaphysical preoccupations
and astringent literary style. He also partakes of Auster's problems.
His densely written book is highly cerebral. It has some affinities
with the traditional detective novel, but reading it is more like
watching someone sitting down to solve a crossword than a murder.
Galip and Jelal seem to love literature more than women. Ruya is
woman with a name, but hardly any body. She is a mystery to Galip
and, surely, to most readers. Galip's perceptions of her and everyone
else are consistently vanilla-flavoured.
But while Galip plods, Jelal flies. Jelal's eccentric and
discursive newspaper essays are amazing. Addressing the reader directly,
he writes about feral children living on the pontoons of the Galata
Bridge, about Levantine pederasty, about letter mysticism, about
Turkish gangsters, about the possible homosexuality of Rumi, about
the desertion of Istanbul by parrots. Jelal is a Turkish Autolycus,
"a snapper up of unconsidered trifles". His fantasia on the drying-up
of the Bosphorus alone is worth the price of the book. Would that
we could get rid of our current newspaper columnists and instead
have Jelal write his loonily erudite articles for some British newspaper.
Jelal's (or Pamuk's) sentences are stately and dense, as befits
a latter-day Turkish De Quincey. Considered as a novel, The Black
Book is a little disappointing, for it fails to deliver the conventional
satisfactions. It should really be read as an encyclopaedia of esoterica
and as a compendium of medieval and modern literary tricks. As such,
it is quite wonderful.