Saturday, October 13, 2007

A review of The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk

I have visited Turkey, but not Istanbul. It’s one of those iconic places that keeps cropping up in travel plans, but then gets overlooked, possibly because its name fits so easily into my thoughts that I convince myself I have already been there. Having just read Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book, that illusion will be orders of magnitude stronger. Orhan Pamuk won the 2006 Nobel Prize for literature and this seems to have spurned new translations of his work, new versions which hopefully can widen his readership in the English-speaking world.

The Black Book is a gigantic work. And, in the way that I suspect most readers might understand the term, there is no plot. Suffice it to say that Galip wakes up one morning and his wife has disappeared. He assumes she has gone off to seek out her first husband, Celal, a well-known newspaper columnist. Galip sets off to find Celal and, he assumes, his wife, but strangely the journalist has also disappeared. As a means to help him track down the two missing people, Galip immerses himself in Celal’s life, his writing and, gradually, his very identity. Effectively he becomes the person he is seeking. He re-reads his past work and discovers unknown things about his own, his wife’s and her former husband’s past. By then, however, we cannot be sure if we are dealing with reminiscences of Celal, Galip’s interpretations of them, Galip’s reworking of them, or, indeed, Galip’s own words presented as if they were those of Celal.

But the plot in The Black Book is almost irrelevant. It’s not a book that one reads to discover what happens. It’s a book that’s replete with flavour, experience and history, and the reader feasts on vast helpings of all three.

Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul – let’s face it, there is no other city on earth that has been named three times and where, on each occasion, that name has passed into language as an expression of political, strategic, religious and economic pre-eminence. It’s a city that bridges continents, ideologies and faiths. Nowhere else on earth has a greater claim to the very quintessence of humanity than Istanbul. And yet modern Istanbul is a Turkish city, and perhaps its most fascinating aspect is its potential to mirror contemporary debates on religion versus secularism, tradition versus modernity, imperial past versus global present.

The Black Book has thirty-six chapters, each having its own title and prefacing quotation. The form, at least in part, is its content, in that each chapter could be read as if it were an article written by Celal or by Galip impersonating Celal. There is no linear narrative. We experience what inspired the writer and there is no ordering of time or place. But we feel we are in that city. We feel we are living its history, whatever that might be. And we feel we are experiencing contemporary debates on its and its people’s identity. The city is central to everything in the book, with its multiple histories and allegiances mixed into the melting pot of its contemporary form.

Throughout, Galip finds he gradually becomes his quarry, Celal. He trades identities and roles, but never permanently, never for sure. In this way the characters become the city, whose sense of place and multiplicity of identities pervade all, thus mirroring the apparent confusion of its – and humanity’s – complexity. But the people eventually are always welcomed by some aspect of the city’s – and humanity’s – multi-faceted nature.

The Black Book is a work that demands to be re-read, but not because it is in any way a difficult or impenetrable read. I have never been to Istanbul, but like the book, I feel it will be an experience that, once tried, will demand to be re-visited.

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