The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk

faber and faber, 2006, 476 p, including iv p Translator’s Afterword.
Translated from the Turkish Kara Kitap (published by Can Yayinlavi Ltd, 1990) by Maureen Freely.

 The Black Book cover

Galip comes home to find his wife Rüya (with whom he has been besotted since childhood and who is also his cousin – apparently this last is a custom widespread in Turkey) has left him. He spends the rest of the novel trying to find out where she has gone. Back to her first husband, once a left-wing firebrand? Or to live with her half-brother Celâl, a famous columnist for the newspaper Milliyet, who has also disappeared?

The chapters written from Galip’s point of view alternate with those in which Celâl’s columns are reproduced, a device which allows Pamuk to ruminate on Turkish and Istanbul history, customs and predilections. It is slightly more complicated than that as just over halfway through, with Celâl’s stock of columns and reprints beginning to run out, Galip takes to writing them himself and presenting them as Celâl’s, so it is possible that all such extracts may in fact be Galip’s thoughts. Indeed one telephone caller to Galip in the guise of Celâl asks if these columns contain the signs that would lead to life’s secret meaning -even if that secret meant nothing. He adds his insight that, “‘No one in this country can ever be himself.’”

In search of Rüya, Galip wanders the streets of Istanbul, especially at night. (A habit also attributed to Ibn Rashid, Sultan Selim, and Mehmet the Conqueror.) This is “the endless fascination afforded to those who wander a city in disguise.” In this novel the presence of the city as in effect a character in its own right – as are all big cities to be fair – is extremely pronounced. After reading the book it’s as if I could walk the place blindfolded. Istanbul also loomed large in the author’s later novel, The Museum of Innocence, and that book’s preoccupation with mementos of a life is prefigured here in The Black Book. What Rüya has left behind, Galip’s memories of Rüya and the remnants of Celâl’s existence are described in loving detail. Again prevalent is the habit of smoking. Everyone in this seems surrounded by clouds of blue tobacco smoke. Once more football as an important factor in Turkish life makes its appearance. (Imagine the reception a British “literary” novel would receive if it mentioned the game at all.)

Rüya was an avid reader of detective novels (which is to say Western detective novels, as the Turkish variant barely existed at the time of writing) and The Black Book has been described as a detective, or at least a mystery, novel. There is a mystery, the disappearances, but the usual preoccupations of a detective novel are absent and, as a detective, Galip is spectacularly ineffective even if, ‘murders that explain books and books that explain murders have a universal appeal, because it is only when a man believes himself to be someone else that he can bring the cudgel down on the victim’s head….. We learn all the rituals and telling details of murder from others, in other words, from legends, stories, reminiscences, and newspapers. In short, we learn about murder from literature….. Even the simplest murder … is an imitation, a literary imitation, even if its perpetrator doesn’t know it.’

Rather than a mystery The Black Book is more an examination of Turkey/Istanbul as seen through the apparently random reflections of Galip on his travels through the city or Celâl in his columns. To an outsider at least, Pamuk appears to have captured his city and culture in the round by focusing on the particular. It is also a rumination on the nature of life and story (or stories within stories inside stories.) “Each story led to another story in an infinite chain,” and, “no matter where they were set …. the love stories were sad and moving.”

In one of these a character pleads, “If people would only just be themselves. If only they would stop telling stories!” In another an heir apparent comes to believe, ‘A sultan’s duty is not to be happy – it is to be himself… it is everyone’s duty – everyone’s.’

The novel is a thinking writer’s work. Galip ponders on the second meanings that might be lurking inside pieces of writing – inviting us to speculate on what he might be hiding in plain sight. As the novel progresses so too does Galip develop a belief about the letters of the alphabet to be discerned on people’s faces and that everything that had ever been written, even the greatest and most authoritative texts in the world, were [sic] about dreams, not real life, dreams conjured up by words. That a text provides insights about its author is suggested by the thought, “What did it mean to read a text if it did not mean entering into the garden of its author’s memory?”

Galip (who, a very short passage intimates, may be Pamuk himself, an intimation which might itself constitute a misdirection) comes to the notion that nothing is as surprising as life. Except for writing, the only consolation.

Pedant’s corner:- Unfortunately the translation is into USian so that we get “soccer” (it’s football,) “a corner shot” (a corner,) “a head shot” (a header,) and “soccer uniform” (a football kit is called a strip.) One actual phrase used was, “after countering a corner shot with a head shot”. This may be how it’s expressed in Turkish but the English term would be “after heading a corner”. Otherwise: dilipidated (dilapidated – used later!) syphillis (syphilis,) “true to our ourselves” (an extraneous “our”,) Trabizon (now more usually rendered Trabzon,) caravansaries/caravansary (caravanserais/caravanserai,) “that I was on to something” (onto.) “Everything that had ever been written, even the greatest and most authoritative texts in the world, were about dreams,” (everything was about dreams,) “whenever writing about about real life” (remove one of those “about”s,) “it is is located” (ditto one “is”,) Averroes’ (Averroes’s – this was in a chapter epigraph so may be original to that.) “He up and left me” (upped and left me,) cul-de-sacs (culs-de-sac,) a lightbulb (light bulb,) “illumination than never came” (that never came,) imposter (impostor – used once, though imposter appeared several times,) “who it was who had beat him” (beaten him – it was a game of chess,) “left- and ring-wing splinter groups” (left- and right-wing,) reptutation (reputation,) “‘He asked me come here’” (to come here,) telerium (tellurium,) sawed-off (sawn-off,) “both staring Bruce Lee” (starring.) “‘These amusing little signs you sent out to your poor deceived readers’” (the rest of this tirade is in present tense so, send,) pedestrals (pedestals.) “The only sound to be heard in the hunting lodge were the cries of the crows” (the only sounds were the cries, or, the only sound was the cries,) “because the city could not afford to keep their generators running” (its generators,) ““destabilize”” (destabilize, preferably destabilise; however, the word is in inverted commas so may be a representation of an original deliberate misspelling in the Turkish.)

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