21 August 2006
by Michael Greenstein, Weekend Post
National Post (Canada) August 19, 2006 Saturday Toronto Edition
THE BLACK BOOK By Orhan Pamuk Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely Vintage 480 pp., $21
Istanbul ranks high among the most interesting cities in the world, its fascination attributable to its geographic location: a meeting point between East and West, Asia and Europe, an imperial crossover as Byzantium and Constantinople and a Mediterranean threshold among the Bosphorus, Marmora and Black seas. Heaping detail upon detail in the same way Dickens chronicled London or Joyce Dublin, Orhan Pamuk puts Istanbul on the map. A Balzac (and Borges) of the Bosphorus, with several novels to his name, Pamuk has become a cause celebre in Turkey and abroad because of his outspokenness on the Armenian genocide. . .
First published in 1990 and translated into English in 1995, The Black Book now appears in a new translation by Maureen Freely, who in her afterword discusses the complexities of the Turkish language, with its "cascading clauses." Her meticulous translation captures the Byzantine musicality of Pamuk's prose in his multi-layered novel, a metaphysical detective story that is a quest for meaning and identity on personal, literary and political levels.
Like the city he writes about, Pamuk straddles modernity and tradition, interweaving his chapters with allusions to and from many sources. The epilogue is taken from The Encyclopedia of Islam (though it could as easily be Pamuk's postmodernist sleight of hand): "Ibn' Arabi writes of a friend and dervish saint, who, after his soul was elevated to the heavens, arrived on Mount Kaf, the magic mountain that encircles the world; gazing around him, he saw that the mountain itself was encircled by a serpent. Now, it is a well-known fact that no such mountain encircles the world, nor is there a serpent."
The Black Book repeatedly calls into question what is real and what is imagined, so that characters and readers often enter into a dervish-like trance in the tug-of-war between centrifugal and centripetal forces, cascading through lengthy narrative passages. If the circular magic mountain undercuts itself, so, too, does the epigraph to the opening chapter: "Never use epigraphs -- they kill the mystery in the work!" The author never ceases to pull the Turkish rug from under his readers' feet.
>>From the outset, the three major, incestuous characters are introduced: Galip (a lawyer) watches his wife (and cousin), Ruya, while thinking about another relative, Celal, a famous journalist whose columns appear in every second chapter, in counterpoint to the main narrative. The opening sentence seems innocent enough, but on second reading the deceptions begin to appear: "Ruya was lying facedown on the bed, lost to the sweet warm darkness beneath the billowing folds of the blue-checked quilt." Only if we know that her name means "dream" do we become aware that The Black Book is a dream within a dream in which Istanbul is both realized and fantasized.
In contrast to Ruya's warm, dreamlike world, the cold January morning in 1980 invades the interior. "The first sounds of a winter morning seeped in from outside: the rumble of a passing car, the clatter of an old bus, the rattle of the copper kettles that the salep maker shared with the pastry cook, the whistle of the parking attendant at the dolmus stop." The narrator captures the sights and sounds of Istanbul that play in Ruya's mind, even as Galip remembers Celal's words that "memory is a garden." These early phrases are merely a prelude to the lengthy lists the narrator accumulates from the external world as well as from psychological realms.
The plot is fairly straightforward: Ruya and Celal disappear, Galip searches for them for several days before they end up being murdered.
Skeletal as this detective summary appears, the novel dwells on so many other matters that the reader loses sight of the plot. At what point does one enter Istanbul's labyrinth and when does one emerge from its intricacies?
Paradox and contradiction abound in this hall of mirrors. Celal's first column begins with an epigraph: "Nothing can ever be as shocking as life. Except writing." Which leads to: "Did you know that the Bosphorus is drying up? I don't think so." Celal's apocalyptic vision haunts the pages of The Black Book where life and art imitate each other to an extreme degree. Celal's next column, "Alaadin's Shop," begins with an epigraph from Byron Pasha: "If I have any fault it is digression." If Pamuk's prose seems digressive, rest assured that everything he writes is to the point (as long as the reader patiently awaits the point).
His "passion for the epic" takes the form of an urban odyssey, a Joycean Ulysses, a picaresque tour of Istanbul. If Ruya is an avid reader of detective fiction, Galip sleuths her and that fiction.
Pamuk is obsessed with the influence of Western cinema, which tends to undermine traditional Turkish life. Turkish identity dominates The Black Book. "Yes, it was because of those damn films -- brought in from the West canister by canister to play in our theatres for hours on end -- that the gestures our people used in the street began to lose their innocence. They were discarding their old ways, faster than the eye could see; they'd embraced a whole new set of gestures --each and every thing they did was an imitation."
So what The Black Book boils down to is a quest for authenticity, for the true self, but that goal remains elusive. Galip and Celal become almost interchangeable, and all the stories about stories --the search to end all searches, word games, surface versions and hidden versions, dreams belonging to others -- all of these, and others too numerous to mention, add up to Istanbul's labyrinth.
Dostoevskian doubles pervade the narrative, multiplying identities.
At once omniscient and ignorant, the narrator calls knowledge into question. "We also knew that the Khazars were really Turks who had converted to Judaism. But what we did not know was that the Turks were as Jewish as Jews were Turkish. And wasn't it amazing to watch these two peoples travel through the 20th century swaying to the rhythm of the same secret music, never meeting, always at a tangent, but forever linked, however condemned, like a pair of helpless twins." This tangential linkage lies at the core of this novel and the country that oscillates between Ataturk and Muhammad. To complicate matters further, The Black Book explores alphabetical letters in the shapes of faces, a system derived from the 15th-century Sufi sect of Hurufism.
After the murders, Pamuk offers an anti-climactic twist: "Reader, dear reader, throughout the writing of this book I have tried ... to keep its narrator separate from its hero, its columns separate from the pages that advance its story ... but please allow me to intervene just once before I send these pages off to the typesetter." His human intervention explains the black dream and black pages that form his black book. Readers accustomed to black print on white pages should adjust their focus to imagine floating letters without a white background: low profile and high visibility.
Labels: Orhan PAMUK