The Black Book
by Orhan Pamuk
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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 country.  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."
ROGUES GALLERY:
ORHAN PAMUK
Reviewed 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's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of
the Cool
.
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Further Clues:

An Interview with Orhan Pamuk by Ángel
Gurría-Quintana from The Paris Review

Big Think Interview with Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul
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