The Black Book
by Orhan Pamuk
A short while before he was honored by
the judges who gave him the Nobel Prize in
literature, Orhan Pamuk stood in front of a
different judge—put on trial for his violations

of Article 301 of his
nation’s penal code,
which punishes any
citizen who "explicitly
insults the Republic
or Turkish Grand
National Assembly."  
Pamuk’s particular
"insult" was his refer-
ence, in an interview
with a Swiss magazine,
to the 1915 genocide
of Armenians by those
who suspected this Christian minority of possible
collusion with foreign invaders during World

War I. Charges were later dropped, but Pamuk
has remained a controversial figure in his native
In January 2008 a number of members
of the Ergenekon underground movement—an
ultra-national secular group opposed to Turkey’s
integration in the European Community—were
arrested for planning assassinations of prominent
figures, and Pamuk was rumored to be one of

the targeted victims. Other incidents, from
accusations of plagiarism to public book

burnings, have dogged this author in his native
country. Yet no other Turkish author has
developed such as large global readership—his
books are available in more than fifty languages
and have sold over seven million copies. In
2006, Time magazine picked Pamuk as one of
the 100 most influential people in the world,
and an impressive array of awards and honors
has come his way in recent years. But success
has not lessened the fiery independence of this
author, who proudly proclaims: "I don't really

fit into the mould." In a 2010 interview Pamuk
elaborated on the risks attendant on writing

boldly in a society where such frankness has not
been the norm. "It's hard to control an open

society where people can print their books,"
Pamuk explained. "You can send these people
to jail, but you can't send a whole nation to jail!
There will always be central authoritarianism

…. But there will always be dignified people
who will pursue their own humors. Whether
they will be crushed and sent to jail or whether
they will balance the picture is a matter of
politics, but I am not pessimistic, as a non-
western post colonial nation."
Essay by Ted Gioia

The lawyer Galip's wife Rüya has disappeared, leaving
behind some clothing, most of the household items
and hundreds of detective stories, books she has read
obsessively for enjoyment and occasionally translated
into Turkish. On the dining table is brief note from
the missing woman, vague on details and offering no
indication of where she has gone or when she might
return. The anguished husband
tells no one of Rüya’s departure
—neither friends, family or
police—and instead embarks
on his own private investigation
into the reasons for her leaving
and her possible whereabouts.   

The story, as outlined here, pre-
sents a conventional mystery story.
But the ways in which author Or-
han Parmuk develops this simple
opening gambit are anything but
conventional.  The pursuit of a
missing person expands into a broader, less easily defined
inquiry—one that encompasses issues more metaphysical
than empirical.   Almost everything becomes a clue, or at
least an enigma, from random photos in the newspaper to
the images on billboards and plastic bags. Before we reach
the conclusion of
The Black Book, all of Istanbul has
seemingly been drawn into the mystery, and it is far from
clear what a solution might look like.   

At the outset, the husband is so desperate for clues that
he even deigns to look inside the mystery books he so
despises for any signs of his wife’s location. "He
detested this world where the English were parodies
of Englishness and no one was fat unless they were
colossally so; the murderers were as artificial as their
victims, serving only as clues in puzzles," Parmuk writes.  
"Galip had once told Rüya that the only detective book
he'd ever want to read would be the one in which not
even the author knew the murderer’s identity. Instead
of decorating the story with clues and red herrings, the
author would be forced to come to grips with his
characters and his subject, and his characters would
have a chance to become people in a book instead of
just figments of their author’s imagination." Rüya, in
response derided these suggestions, pointing out that
"every detail in a detective novel served a purpose."

Galip now has his own array of clues, but it is far from
clear that they present a similar degree of coherence.  
A long quest to find Rüya’s first husband, for example,
leads to a frustrating dead end. Yet a different angle, more
promising, soon emerges. Rüya’s disappearance might be
connected to the fate of another missing party, the famous
newspaper columnist Celâl Salik. Celâl, a bohemian
journalist with underworld connections and a failing
memory, is Rüya's half-brother and Galip's cousin. He
too has vanished without a trace, leaving behind a handful
of final columns and a wide array of odd characters—
some friendly, others hostile—on his trail. In time,
Galip becomes convinced that if he can locate Celâl,
he will also find his wife.  

Celâl has a strange way of dominating this book,
especially given the fact that he is an absent character.
Yet, as a member of the fraternity of newspaper
journalists, who by definition exercise their influence
indirectly via the printed page, Celâl does not need to
be present in order to shape the hopes, the imaginings
and the fears of others. Pamuk both intensifies the
dark mood of
The Black Book and also provides a familiar
postmodern twist—resorting to the text-within-a-
text technique that has become such a staple of books
of this sort—by incorporating Celâl's newspaper columns
into his novel.  The chapters alternate, back and forth,
between the narrative of Galip's pursuit of his wife and
cousin, and the journalistic musings of the latter.  

But what a strange journalist Celâl is! Imagine James
Joyce writing a regular column on the dark side of
Dublin, and given complete freedom by his editor, or
Borges reporting on the hidden life of Buenos Ares,
and you will get some sense of these extravagant
expositions, meandering yet visionary, enticing but
foreboding. Celâl is also known for his love of codes,
puzzles and word games, and many readers search for
hidden messages within his columns. They seek private
communications of coming events—the onset of a
political coup, the arrival of a spiritual savior, an
invitation to an assignation, or some other decisive
turning point.

Celâl's various obsessions increasingly cloud the
unfolding narrative, eventually dislodging the mystery
of the missing duo from center stage in the book.
Instead readers are introduced to a strange assortment
of preoccupations and
idées fixes.  Celâl’s view that
alphabet letters can be read in people’s faces emerges
as a key sub-plot, but with ambiguous implications
The Black Book briefly threatens to veer off into
the surreal or else into the realm of magical realism.
Another interlude, my favorite in the book, presents
the advice of three veteran journalists on how to write
a successful newspaper column—a humorous section
that, like much of this novel, does little to advance the
main plot, but could be anthologized as an effective
stand-alone piece. Above all, readers will be immersed
in Celâl's (and, I would suspect, Pamuk's) constant
agonizing over the question of how people can be
themselves and not just imitations of other people—
a subject that gradually takes on a greater and greater
prominence over the course of
The Black Book,
eventually permeating every aspect of the novel. One
senses that, for our author, this is more than an issue
of individual psychology, but also a matter of his nation's
need to establish its own identity in a world increasingly
polarized, like Turkey itself, between the contrasting
magnetic attractions of the East and the West.  

Pamuk dealt with this same issue, some sixteen years
after the publication of this novel, in his Nobel lecture.  
"What literature needs most to tell and investigate today,"
he stated, "are humanity's basic fears: the fear of being
left outside, and the fear of counting for nothing, and the
feelings of worthlessness that come with such fears; the
collective humiliations, vulnerabilities, slights, grievances,
sensitivities, and imagined insults, and the nationalist
boasts and inflations that are their next of kin." Pamuk,
who has spent a number of years in the United States,
went on to pinpoint a different but related problem
amidst the prosperity of the West, noting that "nations
and peoples taking an excessive pride in their wealth,
and in their having brought us the Renaissance, the
Enlightenment, and Modernism, have, from time to time,
succumbed to a self-satisfaction that is almost as stupid."

Pamuk works an endless number of variations on this
theme of people's incapacity to find themselves, at times
risking reader ennui at his repetitions. He tells of a ruler
who dons the attire of a commoner and sneaks out of
the palace at night—only to encounter a commoner in
disguise as the ruler.  Another story in
The Black Book
describes a barber seeking out Celâl in order to find
how a man can be himself, only to have the columnist
respond with cruel witticisms. Another interlude tells
the story of a prince in line for the throne, obsessed
with the same question of personal authenticity, who
isolates himself from family and other ties in pursuit of
his real identity.  Readers also learn of the master
mannequin maker who failed to attract customers because
his figures did not imitate models from other countries.   
Another side story tells of a brothel in which the
women pretend to be well-known film actresses. In
time, Galip finds himself in a similar quest, as he
gradually loses hold on his own sense of self, and
begins acting like the missing journalist he is pursuing.  
Almost every chapter in the book deepens and extends
this fixation with self-inflicted identity theft.  

These broader enigmas leave a miasma of unresolved
darkness over the world of
The Black Book. Even after
the secret behind the absence of Rüya and Celâl is laid
bare, much remains unexplained. But we now confront
a mystery of a higher level, a shadowy mist, pervasive
yet intangible…and one that may be beyond the efforts
of any individual, whether master detective or humble
citizen, to penetrate.  The traditional crime story with its
need to identify a single culprit turns out to be simple
matter indeed compared to this metaphysical mystery in
which all identities remain open to interpretation and may
even disappear, with little warning, into the void.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture.
His latest book is
Love Songs: The Hidden History, published
by Oxford University Press.

Publication date of this essay: August 23, 2011.
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An Interview with Orhan Pamuk by Ángel
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Big Think Interview with Orhan Pamuk

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