The New Life | Orhan Pamuk

The New Life,
by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Guneli Gun
Published by Faber and Faber (1997)
Rating: ***

Reading Orhan Pamuk is an exercise in learning and unlearning. This book was the third in my journey of understanding the author.

The New Life follows the journey of individuals who, captivated by a book they read, seek to implement its principles, and achieve its conclusion – the prospect of a new life. The protagonist, Osman, notices the book as his friend, Janan sets it down – buying his own copy shortly thereafter. Subsequently, Janan introduces Osman to her boyfriend, Mehmet – who is shortly gunned down at a bus stop. As Mehmet is untraceable, Janan and Osman end up taking bus journeys – which are violent, and surreal, in an attempt to find Mehmet. Ultimately, they find Mehmet’s father, Dr. Fine, who – as the antagonist in the story, has attempted to curb the readership of the book, by murdering individuals who follow its teachings using a network of spies. The book concludes with a revelation of the book’s actual author – who is related to Osman.

This is a summary of the plot. The nuance involved, along with Pamuk’s writing style, makes this an extremely heavy, complex read. As a result, unlike his other works, I don’t think this is his most accessible novel. It left me feeling several mixed feelings. Before we get to criticisms however, Pamuk deserves appreciation.

As always, his storytelling will leave you with a sense of wonder and bewilderment. There’s a lot of depth, and while sometimes difficult to follow, Pamuk’s imagination is a credit to mankind’s thinking. Technically, Pamuk achieves Inception-level writing in the 90’s – something that only took to the screens much later.  Again, quintessentially true to style, there are scathing observations on Turkey’s complex, confused character, and remarks on the West. Further, the existentialism Osman faces – which leaves him in quest for a New Life, and his eventual succumbing to that quest, is something that is relatable across generations.

While the ideas and layering is grand, the writing here lacks a lot of precision. The prose here is heavy. Descriptions, for example, are over-done. Sentences are lengthy, and complicated. As a result, Osman’s introspection is overly complicated, rather than simplistically presented. Additionally, Pamuk appears to have a thing for disappearing acts. Reading this after The Black Book made them seem far too similar, and expectations were heightened.

Further, Pamuk doesn’t develop his characters as much as he usually does. There’s too much similarity between Osman and Janan. Their chemistry is far too quickly created, and progresses only as a result of their commonalities. Their friendship, and unrequited romance, is not organic, insofar as their personalities do not show any progression – aside from their sole focus being to find Mehmet.

Finally, I think what the book could have done with, is some exposition of the book that Osman, Janan and Mehmet all read. I understand that the crowd is split on this, but Pamuk tries to leave it to the reader to figure out what the book was about, and what the “new life” the book propagated actually is. In a sense, this is fantastic – it’s so subjective, and open to interpretation, that it allows the reader to soak in all this information and formulate an opinion. On the other hand, the motivation of these characters is so grey, and difficult to  pinpoint. Some excerpts – perhaps two lines, even, at the start of chapters, would have been fantastic.

In short, this is a more of a case of “what could have been” rather than “what is”. If you’re intrigued by Pamuk, it’s worth the shot, but shouldn’t be your first pick.

The Black Book | Orhan Pamuk

The Black Book
by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Maureen Freely
Published by Vintage (2006)
Rating: ****

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.

Pachinko|Min Jin Lee

Pachinko,
by Min Jin Lee
Published by Grand Central Publishing (2017)

Min Jin Lee’s novel traces a single Korean family through multiple generations across the 1900’s. Without an individual protagonist or a singular plot, the novel is filled with characters, who navigate periods of immense sorrow and joy in annexed Korea, and subsequently, in Japan an adopted homeland that refuses to accept them. The book tests your understanding of several themes, including faith and family.

The thrust of the novel comes from a perplexing loss of identity – a natural consequence of being colonized. Being tagged as Korean under a Japanese Empire means very little, and being a woman under such an Empire brings with it, it’s own set of limitations and societal obligations.

The first chapter is perhaps the best insight into what the novel is going to become. Characters are introduced rapidly, with physical description and dialogue providing the most insight into their behaviour, and the plot moves incredibly smoothly. Sunja is introduced as Hoonie’s daughter – her own identity only beginning to develop once her father passes away, and thus begins a moving saga of a largely ignored historical arc.

Sunja’s unplanned pregnancy sees her combatting her understanding of love, and what relationships mean, at a very young age. At the verge of bringing shame upon her family, already within the lower echelons of society as a consequence of being Korean, she is rescued by a Minister, who offers to marry her. It is at this point that Sunja moves from being Hoonie’s daughter, to becoming a subsequently, a mother, and subsequently Baek Isak’s wife.

As religion is explored through Baek’s understanding of God and what Christianity means, death begins to appear as a recurring occurrence, with Korean families scrambling to stay alive, and getting drafted to serve the Emperor, only to lose their lives on the battlefield. Internally, societal conflict results in death as a result of expressing yourself. Under an Emperor, having an opinion is absurd and a social evil, and you realize, through Yoseb, that suppressed emotions lead to slow, decaying madness.

Shame and guilt underpin many of the finest scenes in the novel, with every character continually forced by their position as second-class citizens to make painful sacrifices, and, consequently, to consider the nature of those sacrifices, and whether they’re worth being made. This continues down to Noa, who leaves his family to start afresh, and Solomon, who is forced to break off a relationship on the same day he is fired.

At all points, however, Pachinko is what appears to tie each character’s narrative together. As a mechanical gambling game that originates in Japan, the Koreans find refuge in running parlours for the rich Japanese, earning their livelihoods from the same business. Noa’s character is the only Korean to reach University, but he gives up on his education, and finds himself running books in a Pachinko parlour, the same thing his uneducated half-brother does, and Pachinko seems to be the ceiling at which Koreans reach.

The novel exemplifies historical research. Lee’s language crafts 20th-century Korea and the sights and smells of the shabby Korean township of Ikaino in Osaka as if you walked down the streets yourself. As a multi-generational novel, age gaps and cultural shifts are extremely well presented, and the novel gets you to think about immigrants in East Asia by presenting Oriental History without a Western skew.

All in all, my 2018 Reading has started off well. This one’s a must-read.