Open Your Heart | The Forty Rules of Love, by Elif Shafak

The Forty Rules of Love,
by Elif Shafak,
Published by Viking (2010)
Rating: *****

Introduction

This is the first audiobook I ever consumed. It was recommended to me the minute I opened up my Audible app for the first time. I saw it, was intrigued, checked out the plot, and knew I had to read it immediately. Of course, I didn’t audiobook it completely. I ended up reading more than half of it because I felt a strong desire to push forth – the narrative had me so hooked. This is also what has sparked a renewed interest in reading Rumi’s poetry, or beginning to read Rumi’s poetry.

Plot

This is a book with a plot-within-a-plot, a book-within-a-book. The narrator/protagonist, Ella Rubenstein is a housewife, who takes a job as a reader for a literary agent. Her first assignment becomes reading a manuscript titled Sweet Blasphemy, a novel written by Aziz Zahara. The book tells the tale of Shams-i-Tabrizi and Rumi, their respective journeys and how they find each other, and Shams’ role in transforming Rumi’s life. Ella is smitten, and takes to communicating with Zahara, finding that Rumi’s story apparently mirrors her own life, and sorrows, with Zahara being the person tasked with helping her find love, and joy again.

Nested Stories

Shafak does a beautiful job of switching between the manuscript and the real-life of Ella Rubenstein. The transitions between the two feel timely, never abrupt, and the chapters are never too long, so you never lose track of where you are in each story line. They seem to weave into each other purposefully, especially since they are meant to mirror each other – the pacing is well done, and Shafak introduces elements of conflict, or of communication and resolution in away that never seems to take your attention away from either plot. I appreciated deeply how Rubenstein’s letters to Zahara mimicked communications and the building relationship between Shams and Rumi. The conversations Shafak writes are deep and meaningful, opening up the minds of each of the characters in the book.

The Little Things

Shafak embeds the Forty Rules of Love into the book, exposing them by imagining that Shams revealed them throughout his life when the time was right for the person being spoken to, to receive them. You can see this across his interaction with common-people, with Rumi, and through Zahara’s quoting of the rules of love in his conversations with Rubenstein. I loved that each chapter began with the second arabic sound “ba”, and that each section of the book referenced an element. The story, in its entirety, with Shafak’s lyrical writing, made me more mindful and aware and appreciative of the beauty I have surrounding me, and for a while, all I felt like doing was sitting down and taking all of it in.
It opened me up to a new kind of love, and I cannot wait to read more Rumi soon.

Conclusion

Easily one of the best finds I’ve made this year. Worth reading for how well she brings Rumi and Shams-i-Tabrizi to life.

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.

Snow | Orhan Pamuk

Snow,
by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Maureen Freely
Published by Vintage International (2005)
Rating: **** 

Snow is essential reading.

In two distinct parts, the book follows the story of Ka (the shortened form of Kar, which is “Snow” in Turkish).

The first part follows Ka’s discovery of Islam. It begins as Ka reunites with Ipek (a woman he once loved), who has recently divorced Muhtar, owing to his interest in political Islam. Ka meets Muhtar, and is introduced to Muhtar’s experience with Islam. During that meeting, he is accused, alongwith Muhtar, for a recent public shooting for which an Islamic extremist group claimed responsibility.

Ka begins to write, composing a poem, “Snow”, and several other poems. Ipek urges Ka to visit a Sheikh, and they have an astounding conversation on the value of organized religion in an individual’s life. Ka, although hesitant to accept religion – claiming it to be “backward”, chooses to accept instead, that his poetry is a gift from God – an unnamed entity. Following this interaction, Ka continues to meet people with different experiences of Islam. He meets a self-identifying Muslim radical as well as Islamic feminists.

Reflective of a newly independent Turkey, there are growing tensions between secularists and Islamists, which ends up blowing out of proportion at a televised event. The police and military impose martial law, and Ka is taking in for questioning once more. Upon his release, he meets an actor who identifies as a Turkist Republican, who ends up orchestrating – in a spectacular sequence, both a coup d’état and a coup de théâtre.

The second part deals with a denouncing of the coup. True to Pamuk, there is a post-modernism in his introduction as the narrator of the book. We fast-forward four years, and explore Turkey post-Ka’s life, and reconstruct events leading to his demise.

You’ll notice that my plot summary elaborates one part of the book far more than it does the second. This is intentional. If you’re intrigued by what the first part holds, the second part is a deeper dive into all things so related, and I would recommend reading the book to find out more.

The characters are phenomenally crafted. My usual criticism of Pamuk involves a comment on how characters are just one-dimensional individuals. But here, every single character is developed well, with backstories that keep you hooked, and motives that you find yourself questioning at every turn. There is no black-and-white, only grey, and it’s very easy to fall in love with, and hate Ka and his crew.

A truth that has been fundamental to Turkey has been its struggle with who it wishes to be, who its leaders wish to represent, and how to unite a population that has such fundamentally different beliefs. Pamuk’s reflections on this struggle is a driving force behind Snow’s plot, and is an exposition both in Turkish society, and a commentary on the ability of speech – to propagate messages of peace and unity, as well as violence.

One star is docked again for Pamuk’s staunch refusal to allow us to fully immerse ourselves in the world of his characters. Similar to the New Life, he reveals nothing of Ka’s poems – making it difficult to fully relate to Ka’s perception of the world, and more crucially, fully appreciate certain scenes that Orhan the narrator weaves for us.

However, an understanding of Western Asia would mandate a reading of Snow. And I would force it upon people as well.

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.

The White Castle | Orhan Pamuk

The White Castle
by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Victoria Holbrook
Published by Faber and Faber (2000)
Rating: **** 

This was my first Orhan Pamuk novel. Unsurprisingly, it’s his shortest novel, so it was a great place to begin reading all of his work. Pamuk is an author I have heard several literature geeks tell me about, but not someone I have been able to sit down and read. Pamuk, therefore, topped my list of authors for the year.

This is Pamuk’s first translated work. The translation here deserves credit, for it appears as if the novel is written in English itself – with details so vivid and flow so undisturbed. One wonders what the Turkish version of the book reads like.

The story begins as a straightforward first-person narrative about the misfortunes of a young Italian scholar who, en route from his native Venice to Naples sometime in the 17th century, is captured by Turkish pirates. Brought to Istanbul, he is imprisoned. Having convinced his captors that he was trained in Italy as a doctor, he finds himself called upon to heal everyone from fellow prisoners to a pasha. A man of high intelligence and common sense, he manages in most cases to effect a cure. Slowly, he wins the admiration of the pasha, who presents him as a slave to his friend, an eccentric scientist called only Hoja, a word, he tells us, meaning “master.”

The narrator appears wholly taken by the resemblance between himself and Hoja, a resemblance Hoja appears to ignore. Hoja, as master, commands the narrator to teach him everything he knows from the West – the science, the philosophy.

After a decade, Hoja and the narrator lay bare their past by writing the stories of their lives for each other to read. This exercise leads to both characters, who are entirely identical in appearance, who adopt the mannerisms of the other.

One day the bubonic plague overwhelms Istanbul. Eager to gain further power at court, Hoja conspires with his double to think of ways of reducing the risk of plague through the exercise of Western hygiene. Cats, for instance, are brought in to get rid of the rats that infest the city, although the sultan is told that these rats are really Satan in disguise. The scheme works, and the plague is banished – Hoja is elevated to Imperial Astrologer.

One of Hoja’s enduring obsessions has been the construction of an ultimate weapon — a “war engine” to rout the sultan’s enemies. The sultan now grants Hoja the necessary funds to pursue his hobbyhorse. Some years later, when a war between the Turks and the Poles erupts, Hoja’s expensive and ridiculous cannon is called into action to help in the assault on a glittering fortress in the Carpathian Mountains, the “white castle” of the book’s title. Alas, it can only fail. Hoja knows this, and he escapes from the battle into the fog rather than risk beheading by an irate sultan. In fact, Hoja leaves the sultan’s realm altogether and goes to Venice, to resume there the life of his Italian double, and his slave takes over Hoja’s life as a Turkish sage.

It is at this juncture, that Hoja introduces plot twists and brings into question the identity of the narrator. By the end of the book, you’re left uncertain about who the narrator actually was, and whether or not there were two characters at all.

In this act, lies Pamuk’s greatest triumph. The tale is really simple, the plot development rapid, and the prose, flowing. The twist at the end, however, is sufficient to keep you awake all night. It points at a fundamental question about human nature and human identities – the struggle of understanding oneself. By questioning who the narrator actually is, Pamuk makes you wonder: Why are you who you are? What shapes you? What is your motivation? What is your desire?

These existential questions may not be for all readers. They may also not arise to everyone who reads the book. For example, an alternate interpretation of the book would allow you to ask the question: Does slavery and captivity drive one insane?

Another alternate interpretation would make question the institution of religion and the concept of a value-system.

Whatever questions Pamuk leaves you with, it appears he does so without force. His words don’t point you to definitive answers, nor to mandatory questions. The ease of his narration, and the detail of the characters and dialogue make this an enjoyable, fast-paced read.

A star was docked for the ending. To me, it felt unfinished and incomplete. If this was a deliberate measure, it is one I am yet to fully appreciate. All I know is that I’m going to be reading a lot more of Pamuk, because I’m intrigued by the manner in which he weaves his tales.