The Black Book
by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Maureen Freely
Published by Vintage (2006)
As an exposition of Turkish culture, only the Turkish or individuals with intricate knowledge of the Mediterranean nation’s history can comment on the accuracy of The Black Book. I do not claim to be an expert in this field. As a result, my comments on Turkishness are restricted to plot points which stood out to me. Nonetheless, it is impossible to read Pamuk, even the translated version, and miss his identity and the influence of his surroundings on the book.
The Black Book opens with rhe protagonist, Galip, finding that his wife/first cousin Rüya has left him. Over the course of the novel, he attempts to hunt her down in Istanbul – suspecting that she has taken off with her half-brother, Celal, a columnist. The book weaves in reprints of Celal’s columns with Galip’s hunt for his wife. Eventually, Galip attempts living as Celal – trying to think like Celal, and understand where they could have possibly disappeared. Eventually, trying to fuse his identity with Celal’s has consequences he was unprepared for – including life-threatening circumstances, which arrive from Celal’s own past. The book ends with a death, and a revelation built-up too, but unpredictable, which is typical of Pamuk’s writing.
As with The White Castle, Pamuk’s craft of storytelling is a thoroughly enjoyable adventure. His prose is smooth, and fluid – with a sustained build-up to a conclusion that sparks the imagination. True to style, Pamuk is able to invoke post-modern elements including a reveal that introduces the narrator’s role in the entire story, startling, yet masterfully constructed.
Noticeably, The Black Book builds on a lot of Pamuk’s revelations about identity in the White Castle. There are multiple levels on which a deep level of confusion about identity dominates the narrative. First, we see Galip’s own confusion and dissatisfaction with who he is. He slowly comes to understand his own unhappiness and causative factors for the same. This plot intertwines with Istanbul’s own identity as a city – which is split between an attempt to be secular, and an attempt to proudly accept and celebrate it’s Muslim and Christian roots. Finally, the book asks several questions about Turkey’s identity as a nation – and how people choose to confront the westernization of the nation.
None of this feels forced upon the reader, which I think is Pamuk’s biggest achievement with this book. It is entirely possible to enjoy the mystery of Rüya’s disappearance without viewing the plot as a commentary on Turkey. I thought the book could do with greater depth of character for Rüya, who is painted exclusively through one lens. Additionally, Pamuk’s choice of focusing on Istanbul and Turkey separately is intriguing, and perhaps, overdone in parts.
Nonetheless, this is a book I would thoroughly recommend. Pamuk is an author I’ve been aching to read, and I’m glad 2019 is the year I read him.