Black Leopard, Red Wolf | Marlon James (The Dark Star Trilogy, #1)

Black Leopard, Red Wolf (The Dark Star Trilogy, #1)
by Marlon James,
Published by Riverhead Books (2019)
Rating: ****

This is a book that proclaimed to be an African Game of Thrones. Its publication was pretty timely, given that Game of Thrones (the TV series) was due to end in May, 2019. That comparison, however, would carry the weight of what George R.R. Martin had written through his novels so far, with the conclusion of that series presently awaited. Irrespective of the comparison, which I will address later, I think this is an African fantasy series which I will follow, and I am looking forward to reading the next installment soon. The strength of the writing derives in its ability to blend, uniquely, African mythology and narrative – while staying true to the voice James tries to give his characters.

First, we must address the structure of the tale. We’re introduced to a narrator, and the novel itself begins with one of the eeriest opening lines that come to memory,

“The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.” 

Who is the child? How did they die? Who knew the child would die? Did anyone? Could someone have prevented it? Who says these lines?

We are, almost instantly, introduced to Tracker. We learn he is a hunted, renowned for his skill. We learn, that as with others who are at the top of their craft, he has principles he follows while working. We learn one of these was that he worked alone. We also learnt he broke that principle – learning to work in a group, and searching for a boy. (At which point you wonder whether this boy is the same child referred to above). James structures the novel as a series of chapters where Tracker takes you through a part of the plot, containing an event, or events, or introducing characters and stories which form part of a larger narration. Each of these ends “But that is not the story.”

That structure is pulled off marvelously. Its the first time I’ve noticed such explicit messaging by authors pushing individuals to read the next chapter. But that’s not the only purpose it serves. It heightens a lot of the intrigue, and the mystery, and foreshadows the ending beautifully – for you’re always left in wonder about what James’, (and Tracker’s) endgoals are. The unpredictability served me well.

This is very dark writing. There’s a lot of violence, some gory imagery, and a lot of opiod description. There’s a malevolence that hangs in the air throughout the novel, which I think is something that’s reminiscent of Game of Thrones. And contrary to what other leading reviews say, I don’t believe that this story lacks subtlety. The reason I say this is because we don’t know what the forthcoming installments in the series will bring – and there could be several plot points, or introduced elements that James chooses to use.

I docked a star because for the promise of description, there’s little to excite the imagination about the forests Tracker lurks. There is description of several things, but not much about the setting – in places where there could be. The other element that made me uncomfortable was the uncertainty with which some decisions in writing were made. There appears to be a lot of confusion, for example, about Trackers’ own identity (his sexuality, for example). If that was a deliberate decision, and I can understand why authors might choose to do that (for it mirrors the confusing nature of the spectrum in reality; and the conflict one often fees), it was written without care.

I hope James fixes that. The latter more than the former.

For everyone else looking to dive into African fantasy or African mythology, and to have your mind absolutely blown by a swarm of plot – this is a book you need to pick up. It will leave you baffled and craving more, and if you’re me – you will spend a night collecting material on African origin stories and mythology.  And then you’ll watch Black Panther.

The Red-Haired Woman | Orhan Pamuk

The Red-Haired Woman,
by Orhan Pamuk,
Published by Knopf (2017)
Rating: ****

I had a hard time getting into this book. But when I did, I found that I enjoyed it more than I’ve enjoyed reading other novels Pamuk has written. The book’s appeal probably also lies in the fact that it is one of his shorter works.

The story falls into three parts, each of which is quite distinct.

The first part is both the simplest and the easiest to like. The narrator Cem tells of a job he took after his father, who was involved in a left wing group, had disappeared and before his university entrance exams. This involved working as an apprentice to a traditional well-digger. The story describes the process of well-digging and Cem’s relationship with his master, a father figure who tells him stories. Cem becomes obsessed with the red-haired woman of the title, and eventually discovers that she works in a travelling theatre with her husband. This part comes to a dramatic conclusion.

In the second part ,the older narrator continues the story and describes his progression, first in marrying, then by running a company that invests in developing new suburbs of Istanbul, one of which is the town in which the first part is set. The company becomes very successful, Cem discovers that his master survived and succeeded in finding water and completing the well, and that the red-haired woman was a former lover of his father, and the son of the red-haired woman claims that Cem is his father. This story also builds to a dramatic confrontation in which Cem is led by a man claiming to be his son’s friend to see the well, eventually revealing himself as the son, leading to a fight in which Cem’s gun is fired. So if the first part paralleled Oedipus, this is closer to Rostam and Sohrab.

The third part is related by the red-haired woman, which made for an interesting change of perspective. The son is in prison accused of Cem’s murder, and she visits him and tells him her story and Cem’s. She encourages him to write his father’s story, which explains how the first two parts came to be written.

This is a book meant for an introduction into the world of Orhan Pamuk. It is reflective of everything associated with his writing: a depth of plot, complex characters, intriguing perspectives, and so much more. It’s also reflective of my biggest criticism of Pamuk – that he tries to do too much. There are parts here which feel forced, and unnecessary, as with several other works of his. As a result, it’s a perfect introduction, and good material to assess whether or not you’ll enjoy reading Orhan Pamuk.

Silent House | Orhan Pamuk

Silent House,
by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Robert Finn
Published by Knopf (2012)
Rating: ****

Perhaps one of Pamuk’s most politically-charged works, Silent House is a really, really good read. The novel takes place against the backdrop of the military coup of 1980, and provides an opportunity to understand the relationship between Turkey’s political and military establishment through the experience of the common-man.

The plot is this. The Darvinoglu family gathers for its annual reunion at the crumbling ancestral mansion in the resort town of Cennethisar, near Istanbul. Into the mix of clashing personalities, gossip, plans and barely buried grudges that are usually part of such reunions, this book adds debates over religion, Turkey’s divided feelings about belonging to Europe or the Middle East, and hints of the looming coup. The national schism is dramatically personified in Hasan, the illegitimate teenage grandson of the family patriarch, Selahattin. Frustrated by his poverty and flunking out of school, Hasan tries to curry favour with an ultra-nationalist vigilante group, while at the same time stalking Nilgün, the beautiful, cheerful, communist-leaning granddaughter.

The book explores Turkey like none of Pamuk’s other works do – by providing insight into how families operate in such a confusing atmosphere. It provides explanations to thought patterns of the right-wing and the extremists, as well as to the understanding of Turkish culture that the centrists and the left-wing holds.

What is particularly enjoyable is the writing style, with each of the characters in the Darvinoglu family getting their own first-person perspective, which allows you to shift between the experiences of each of them individually, and the family as a collective.

This is a good book. There’s no more commentary I would like to offer. It is insightful, engaging, and fast – and worth reading.

The Museum of Innocence | Orhan Pamuk

The Museum of Innocence,
by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Maureen Freely
Published by Knopf (2009)
Rating: *** 

This is a love story about an engaged man who has an affair with a girl he meets. Over the course of the novel, he deals with detachment from the affair – since his lover flees, reconnecting with his lover, and then detachment once more, as they get separated forever. It’s a really simple plot, woven together with an intensity of prose that only Pamuk is capable of. As I set the book down, it felt like I had finished reading the diary of one of my closest friends. This is the overwhelming nature of Pamuk’s writing. He makes you feel like you’ve just understood everything about another person – his protagonist.

It’s setting is very different from his other books. Several of Pamuk’s previous attempts concentrate on understanding and depicting Turkey by providing the perspective of an outsider, or rather, an individual navigating through its various faces. Here, Pamuk sticks to representing the Turkish experience through upper-class Istanbul in the 1970s and 1980s – an image that he has previously not written much about. There is no religious element, no identity conflict that Turkey experiences in this book, making this the least Pamuk-esque book (if you want to pigeon-hole authors) that he has written.

As a result, it is a phenomenal opportunity to appreciate his craft and his ability to weave a story together. Much like The White Castle, there is a power to the narrator, which continues through to the end of the novel. Additionally, the unexpected twists – and the uncertainty of all relationships built in the book, makes this an enjoyable read.

However, I thought that the book was far too long for the plot it was explaining. While the length of texts usually never bothers me, it was really startling how stretched out the book ended up becoming. Conversation got very dry in the middle, as a result of Pamuk’s deliberate choice to spend time on each individual moment his narrator experiences. As a consequence, I lost interest in the characters at various moments of time.

Additionally, the romantic plot got creepy in various parts, with an obsessiveness that wasn’t enjoyable. It’s very possible that the translation leads to this heightened creepiness, but if the book is this creepy in the original Turkish, it is a cause for concern.

In conclusion, I’d recommend reading it if you are a literature enthusiast. This isn’t a light read, even though the plot summary makes it sound like it.

My Name Is Red | Orhan Pamuk

My Name is Red,
by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Erdağ M. Göknar
Published by Vintage (2002)
Rating: ***** 

I’m not sure I will be able to do justice to the plot of My Name Is Red. It’s difficult to put into words. In essence, it is a murder mystery. An individual, Elegant has been murdered, and his corpse lies undiscovered at the bottom of a well. Speaking from the afterlife, he hopes that his body is found soon and that the murderer is captured.

However, Elegant is not the sole narrator through the book. Each fresh chapter introduces a new character to the story, and ends up explaining their backstory, alongwith how much they know about the murder of Elegant. As we learn more about the motives for murder, so we learn about the motives behind art, and the possibilities of its interpretation.

Pamuk’s consistency with exploring the blurring of lines in the confluence between the East and the West continues here as well. Each narrator, though modernist, has an intriguing take on the value and role of art in a person’s life. So too, does each narrator have a perspective on whom the likely murderer is. Pamuk unravels the plot slowly, allowing for these philosophical discussions and beliefs to be exposed in as nuanced a manner as possible. Pamuk manages to portray the 16th century world, full of its own contradictions, and capture it in a manner that is wholesome and enjoyable.

However, if you are reading Pamuk purely for the murder mystery – this might not live up to your expectations. There’s barely any distinction drawn in the likelihood that one of the narrators may have murdered elegant, which leaves room for a lot of doubt, and a lot of tension, one that Pamuk diffuses in a manner that isn’t all that appreciable. The narratives is skewed and feels heavily-strung together.

As a result, Pamuk’s novel gets 5-stars on its value as a text and its contribution to my understanding of ideas that it presents – lucid, simplistic, and detailed. However, as a pure literary text, my jury will have to wait for a re-read. Or multiple re-reads.