Some thoughts on Orhan Pamuk's "The black book"


In Ireland I finished Orhan Pamuk's epic novel of Istambul, "The Black Book". It's long and dense book, and it required a great deal of concentration. The wilds of Ireland is really an ideal place to read it. It had taken me almost two months of Parisian time to reach the half-way mark: in a week in Ireland I finished it.

I'd bought on a recent trip to New York because I realised that most novels I'm reading these days seem to be by authors I've already read. Not too experimental, that! Pamuk, winner of the 2006 Nobel prize for literature, seemed to be an interesting writer, so I thought I would give his book a spin.

There is only really one theme in the book, identity, which I understand is a typically Turkish concern. I can understand that, living on the frontier between East and West, Asia and Europe. (Istambul/Constantinopole/Byzantium has always fascinated me, in fact I made several fruitless attempts to memorize W. B. Yeats' wonderful and incomprehensible poem about that city, and I have always been interested to visit there, but I haven't had the chance so far). In Pamuk's book, everyone is trying to be someone else, is switching identity and place. The principal character spends the entire book searching for his friend and his wife, who aren't there, who are absent, who never show up, and before the end of the book he actually assumes his friend's identity and begins to write his famous newspaper column for him.

The book is full of similar stories of blurring of identities. The real scale of the book are stories of a few pages in length, and there seem to be hundreds, some more fantastic than others. Of an enormous underground city beneath the streets of Istanbul filled with mannequins which are flawless copies of real people. Of an old journalist who, confined to his flat, finally convinces himself that he is Marcel Proust and he is living inside his novels of Proust, and is forever waiting for his sweetheart to return. Of the prince who wants to write only that which is "real" and "true" and which speaks from his inner self; to do this he destroys his library so that these books might not possibly influence him, he strips to furnishings from his house so that his thoughts might be uninterrupted by such distractions. Isolates himself. Returns to zero. Speaks to no-one.

The book's ending is cruel and shocking. I understood, too, why Mr. Pamuk is sometimes less than popular with the Turkish authorities. There is a perhaps a little too much X-ray vision in his picture of Turkish society....

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