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The Museum of Innocence Museum

I thought I had posted about this shortly after I published my review of Orhan Pamuk’s book The Museum of Innocence, to which I alluded two posts ago.

However, I have searched for such a post on the blog and can’t find it, so it seems I did not.

What there is, though, is an actual Museum of Innocence in Istanbul.

It was set up by Orhan Pamuk at the same time as he was writing the novel, to reflect upper-middle class life in Istanbul from the 70s to the 2000s.

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.)

The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk

Vintage International, 1998? 176 p. Translated from the Turkish, Beyaz Kale, by Victoria Holbrook.

The White Castle cover

Apart from a present day introduction which frames the tale within as a found manuscript, The White Castle, Pamuk’s first novel, is set in the 17th century, narrated by an educated man from Empoli who is captured by the Turks and taken to Istanbul where he is given into the care of someone called Hoja (‘master’) who could be his double. The intention is that his learning will help Hoja in his efforts to produce better fireworks. Hoja also uses his captive’s knowledge to impress the Sultan, eventually gaining the post of royal astrologer. The two become involved in the question of why they are the way they are, the narrator confessing his past faults (which Hoja cannot.) In the process Hoja learns all about the narrator’s past. This makes the narrator increasingly uneasy, imagining Hoja, armed with this knowledge, being able to travel to Italy and take his place there, though of course in the meantime also learning about Hoja. They work for years on an “incredible” weapon – a wheeled, armoured contraption that gets bogged down when attacking the white castle of the title. This failure leads to Hoja vanishing (to Italy?) and the narrator taking his place as court astrologer, even marrying and having children. The subtlety of this is that it is possible that it is either of them who is actually narrating the story, the Italian – or Hoja. Have they really swapped places, or merely pretended to? If someone can give a realistic, convincing, appearance of being someone else, living as that person, do they actually become so? And does it matter if they are not?

2014 in Books Read

The ones that stick in my mind most – for whatever reason – are:-

Signs of Life by M John Harrison
Mr Mee by Andrew Crumey
Be My Enemy by Ian McDonald
The Deadman’s Pedal by Alan Warner
A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon – but in especial Sunset Song
The Moon King by Neil Williamson
The Dogs and the Wolves by Irène Némirovsky
The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani
HHhH by Laurent Binet
That Summer by Andrew Greig
Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
Way to Go by Alan Spence

Four SF/Fantasy novels, six Scottish ones (eight if the trilogy is separated) and no less than five translated works.

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

Faber and Faber, 2002, 508 p. Translated from the Turkish Benim Adim Kirmizi by Erdağ M Göknar.

My Name is Red cover

Well, this is an interesting concoction. The events take place in Istanbul in the time of Sultan Murat III. The first chapter is entitled I am a Corpse and is narrated by a murder victim. This sets up the novel as a whodunnit but Pamuk is far too subtle a writer for that to be his sole concern. The remainder of the book is narrated from a wide variety of viewpoints; several manuscript illustrators, the effectively widowed daughter of one of them, her son, her suitor, their go-between, the corpse, a dog, a tree, a counterfeit gold coin, death, the colour red, a horse, Satan – and two dervishes. In various of these the reader is occasionally addressed directly. The non-human narrators turn out to be parts of a manuscript illustration designed to show the splendour, magnificence and power of the Sultan, to impress Westerners, especially Venetians. Not a simple read then, by any means. Add to this the fact that three corpses undertake narration duties since during two of the relevant chapters the particular narrator is also killed – and describes the experience – and the artistry becomes evident.

In ways this reminded me of The Name of the Rose as it is the manuscript that is at the heart of things. So we have passages dealing with the philosophy of illustration and miniaturism, its place in the Islamic traditions, on whether or not it is blasphemy to ape the Venetian/Frankish form of realistic painting and use perspective, to show Allah’s view of the world, or the world as it is. The murders are direct consequences of this conflict. Plus there is a meditation on the acceptance of blindness as Allah’s reward to the miniaturist for his years of devotion to his art and frequent references to the Persian tales of Hüsrev and Shirin, and of Sohrab and Rüstem. There are, too, several instances of characters telling stories from the perspectives of folk named Alif, Ba and Djim. Some of these interpolations verge on the tedious but perhaps to Turkish readers they have more resonance.

The above may make it sound as if the book is difficult, but it isn’t if you are prepared to go with the flow as I was. I certainly will be reading more Pamuk, who clearly has considerable self-confidence. In what has been a feature of all his novels I have read so far there is a character named Orhan. This time it is not “Orhan Pamuk” though, but the Orhan within is eventually revealed to be the overall “author” of the book we are reading.

In the background but providing some impetus to the plot at times a preacher from Erzurum is blaming apostates and infidels for the supposed catastrophes of the last ten years and stirring up the mob. Casting blame on the other. Does this sound familiar to anybody?

Among Pamuk’s bon mots here are, “Only imbeciles are innocent,” “A letter doesn’t communicate by words alone. A letter, just like a book, can be read by smelling it, touching it and fondling it” and “Painting is the silence of thought and the music of sight.” He has the old miniaturist Osman say, “Painting is the act of seeking out Allah’s memories and seeing the world as He sees the world.” The book’s main love interest, the illustrator’s daughter, Shekure, tells us, “Marriage douses love’s flame, leaving nothing but a barren and melancholy blackness,” but, “The truth is contentment. Love and marriage are but a means to attaining it,” and that painters “substitute the joy of seeing for the joy of life.”

The translation is into USian and there were several curiosities or infelicities within it. Iron smiths may be a direct translation from Turkish but the English word is blacksmiths. Then we had, “your sympathy and understanding are much obliged,” “the both of you,” “artists who are discontent with,” “a superior element as all of you are familiar,” “would’ve hid that picture,” a use of “plenty” where “greatly” made more sense plus the misspellings “guilded,” “descendents,” “practice” as a verb, the “pitfulls” of love and women, “imposter,” “quandries.”

Best of the Year

It’s traditional at this season of the year to list what has most impressed over the past twelve or so months. Except I’ve only done it once before. Twelve months ago.

Once again I find ten books stood out over the year.

In order of reading they were:-

Snow by Orhan Pamuk
Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon
Empty Space by M John Harrison
New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani
Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
Spin by Nina Allan
The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa
Girl Reading by Katie Ward
Planesrunner by Ian McDonald
Fire in the Blood by Irène Némirovsky

4 are translations, 4 are SF*, 3 are by women. Make of that what you will.

*If you count the last section of Girl Reading, that would be 4 and a bit.

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez

Translated from the Spanish El amor en los tiempos del cólera by Edith Grossman.
Penguin, 2007, 348 p. First published by Editorial Oveja Nregra Ltda, Bogota, 1985.

The opening sentence, “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love,” hits us immediately with two of the great triumvirate of literary preoccupations; love and death. (Bitter almonds is the smell of cyanide.) The only one remaining is sex. Sex does come later but not till well into the book.

By this gambit we are invited to believe that the story is to be that of Dr Juliano Urbino de la Calle, who has been called in to certify the death (by suicide) of his friend and chess opponent Jeremiah de Saint-Amour. The main focus of the novel is, however, on Florentino Ariza, who conceived a passion for Dr Urbino’s wife, Fermana Daza, in both their youths, and has maintained it ever since. In some respects this aspect of the novel has echoes in Orhan Pamuk’s similarly obsessed protagonist in The Museum of Innocence.

The action of Love in the Time of Cholera mainly takes place in an unnamed city somewhere on the delta of the River Magdalena on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, though there is a late voyage up and down the river.

The narrative flows between the three main agonists, detailing aspects of their lives in the decades over which the story rummages back and forward. Marquez does nothing so crude as to devote sections to one character, he weaves in and out of the three’s concerns without a break. In the background are other colourful characters but the lives of these people are well-to-do, we see little, if any, of more impoverished inhabitants. Flashes of the history of the country, which has seen several civil wars which were really all one war, appear only in passing, which is, of course, how the well-to-do would have experienced them. Only by inference is the possibility of atrocities hinted at, for example, “For as long as I can remember, they have killed us in the cities with decrees, not with bullets.”

Joseph Conrad (in his pre-novelist incarnation as Joseph T K Korzeniowski) gains a brief mention as being involved in some sort of arms deal.

Interspersed through the novel Marquez gives us some acute aperçus.
“The toilet must have been invented by someone who knew nothing about men.”
“If he had told the truth not … anybody in this whole town would have loved him as much as they did.”
“… too young to know the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good,”
“… nothing in this world was more difficult than love.”
“Always remember that the most important thing in a good marriage is not happiness, but stability.”
“It is incredible how one can be happy for so many years in the midst of so many squabbles, so many problems, damn it, and not really know if it was love or not.”
“But when a woman decides to sleep with a man, there is no wall she will not scale, no fortress she will not destroy, no moral consideration she will not ignore at its very root.”

There was an instance of odd wording in the translation, “for he did compete not out of ambition for the prize, but” surely ought to be either, “for he competed not out of ambition, but…” or “for he did not compete out of ambition, but…”

Love in the Time of Cholera bears the stamp of a novelist who knows the inner workings of the human heart, its constancies (and inconstancies.)

Snow by Orhan Pamuk

Faber and Faber, 2005, 436p. Translated from the Turkish, Kar, by Maureen Freely

Turkish poet, Kerim Alakusoğlu, who dislikes his name and wishes to be known only as Ka, has returned temporarily from Germany to undertake an investigation for the Istanbul newspaper Republican into a spate of teenage girl suicides in the remote city of Kars in Anatolia and also to report on an upcoming election there. The suicides are by girls who were being forced to remove their headscarves in order to attend state run school. Also on Ka’s mind is the possibility of reacquainting himself with the beautiful İpek, recently divorced from her husband.

The situation he finds himself in unlocks Ka’s writer’s block and poems flow from him – 19 in the few days the story encompasses. He notes these down in a green notebook and assigns them to positions along three axes, Memory, Logic and Imagination, on a diagram of a snowflake.

The narrative is mostly third person from Ka’s viewpoint but chapter 29, where the snowflake appears, and the concluding ones are first person by the author.

Kars is one of those unfortunate places which has seen many upheavals and changes of country in its history. Local factions include Kurdish nationalists, Islamists, secularists, even a few die-hard communists from the Soviet era. Ka’s visit coincides with a snowstorm cutting Kars off from the rest of Turkey giving opportunity for the various simmering discontents to come to the boil. In the middle of a live TV broadcast of a stage show dealing with the headscarf issue a local coup takes place.

The importance of football in modern Turkey is underlined by its several mentions in this book (as it was also in the other two Pamuk novels I have read.) Not a typical reference to find in a literary novel. Imagine the guffaws were the Beautiful Game to feature with any prominence in a British novel by a Nobel laureate.

Another presence here common to those two previous books is the appearance in the narrative of a certain Orhan Pamuk, a friend of Ka and telling his story for him. Is this the secret to winning the Nobel Prize? Put yourself into your books as a character?

Due to its history the tension between religion and secularism is particularly intense in Turkey and it is no surprise the story turns on this. The propensity for such disagreements to turn into violence is given due weight here as is the potential for long memories and grudges to be held.

There is more incident in this novel than in The Museum of Innocence but the background of Turkish society continues to be fascinating and as in that book the translation flows admirably.

Goodbye 2012

I don’t usually do end of year round-ups – mostly because most folk write theirs before Christmas and that offends my sensibilities. The year ends on 31st Dec, not before.
Whatever, I looked through all the fiction books I read this year and found twelve that stood out. In order of reading they were:-

PfITZ by Andrew Crumey
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
The Kings of Eternity by Eric Brown
the Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht
And The Land Lay Still by James Robertson
The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk
Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
New Model Army by Adam Roberts
Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson
D’Alembert’s Principle by Andrew Crumey

That’s four by women and eight by men, which is a pretty high strike rate for the distaff side compared to my fiction reading as a whole, 12:45 – is that shockingly low or a reflection of publishing? Four were SF, eight not; though that ratio alters if you count the fantastical – the Lord, the Obreht, the Bulgakov, and the Crumeys which feature stories from a city made up within one of the two. Only the Robertson and the Pamuk lie wholly within the realm of the naturalistic.

I don’t propose to rank the twelve in any way.

Silent House by Orhan Pamuk

faber and faber, 2012, 334p. Translated from the Turkish, Sessiv Ev, by Robert Finn

 Silent House cover

Silent House is Pamuk’s second novel (from 1983) but not published in English till 2012. The book centres round the visit from Istanbul to her home at Cennethisar of the grandchildren of Fatma Darvinoğlu. Fatma’s husband, Selahattin, was a doctor who, long before World War 2, frightened off his patients with his atheism and consequently squandered her inheritance of jewellery as a result of his lack of income. Their unusual surname was taken at the time when Atatürk forced though the adoption of the practice for Muslims in 1934 and Selahattin opted for “Son of Darwin.” Fatma recollects her husband’s catalogue of unacceptable behaviours in interior monologues while present day life goes on around her. Other viewpoint characters are Fatma’s grandson Faruk, an historian with a failed marriage; his brother Metin, who thinks he’s in love with a girl called Ceylan; her servant, the dwarf Recep, who is her husband’s illegitimate child; and Hasan, son of Recep’s likewise bastard brother Ismail, who has become involved with right wing petty agitators and is smitten by Nilgün, sister of Faruk and Metin.

As in The Museum of Innocence the tensions between Turkey and “the West,” tradition and modernism, religion and the secular, loom large. The political situation in 1980s Turkey is also important here. While I was not familiar with that background enough was conveyed for that lack of knowledge not to matter.

The translation is into USian which is fine for the most part but occasionally led to me being hauled away from Turkey by the intrusion of a particularly USian usage (eg “not a cent” – would a Turkish coin denomination not have sufficed here?)

The five narrative viewpoints do not provide as sustained a focus as the all-but single one of The Museum of Innocence but do give a broader picture of Turkish society.

In one of the newspaper reviews of books of the year I saw Silent House described as a comic satire. I must say I did not find it particularly comic; the tone certainly isn’t light and there is a dark tinge to proceedings. There are also hints of why Pamuk would win the Nobel prize.

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