The Black Book
By Orhan Pamuk, translated by Maureen Freely
VINTAGE ORIGINAL; 466 PAGES; $14.95 PAPERBACK
When it was first published in 1990, Orhan Pamuk’s “The Black Book” established the author as a modern-day James Joyce, doing for Istanbul what Joyce did for Dublin. But it wasn’t until his last two novels, “My Name Is Red” and “Snow,” that the Turkish writer found a widespread international audience. It is now hard to mention his name without adding that he is in the forefront of candidates for the Nobel Prize.
In his home country, where pirated copies of his novels are peddled on street corners, Pamuk is something of a rock star and political lightning rod who has stirred criticism from both secular and Islamic detractors, not only for his writing but also for his outspoken opinions.
The plots of his novels are invariably the scaffolding to which a dozen (or more) other stories, and countless riffs about all matters Turkish, are attached.
This is certainly true of “The Black Book,” reissued this month in a new translation by Maureen Freely. The novel opens as a detective story about a husband searching for his missing wife. Galip, an Istanbul lawyer, discovers that his wife, Ruya, a lover of detective novels, has vanished without explanation, leaving only a cryptic “19 word” note in green ink. When he is unable to reach Ruya’s half brother, the supremely gifted and controversial columnist Celal, Galip becomes convinced that the two are off somewhere together and that he will need to find Celal, whom Ruya has always liked, to locate his restless wife. He concocts a series of comic lies to keep Ruya’s family and friends at bay and then — seeing himself as the reluctant star in one of Ruya’s novels (which he scornfully says she devours “like pistachios”) — begins wandering the winding streets, dusty cafes and darkened movie theaters of Istanbul in search of his wife and Celal.
The book proceeds along two paths, depicted in alternating chapters: Galip’s search, and Celal’s dazzlingly literate columns, which Galip studies obsessively in search of clues and secret meanings. While the writing is strong throughout, it is in Celal’s columns that Pamuk is at his best, exploring a dizzying array of subjects, from a fantastical piece about the Bosporus drying up and leaving a sedimentary history of Istanbul in its muddy floor, to ones on Sufi mysticism, or about a Cyclops rumored to dwell in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, or whether an influx of crows has caused an increase in snow.
In the most poignant of these, “A Story About People Who Can’t Tell Stories,” Celal describes in close detail three scenes around the city in which a character with much to say has remained unhappily silent. Galip, who has never been able to say much of anything meaningful to his wife, reads this and other columns as though they were written for him alone.
“When you look into the faces of these quiet creatures who don’t know how to tell stories — who are mute, who can’t make themselves heard, who fade into the woodwork, who only think of the perfect answer after the fact, after they’re back at home, who can never think of a story that anyone else will find interesting — is there not more depth and more meaning in them? You can see every letter of every untold story swimming on their faces, and all the signs of silence, dejection, and even defeat.”
Celal vows in his writing to take up for those people, saying, “I am finally aware that there is no other subject: From now on I shall devote myself utterly to the hidden poetry of our faces, the terrifying secret that lurks inside our human gaze.”
Galip’s half of the story has at the outset a dreamy, half conscious quality to it, as he drops into a basement where a mannequin-maker has re-created all of Turkish history with his dolls, or when he goes to the movies and falls in love with the woman on the screen, only to lose heart as “a strong, passionate, he-man type stepped in to take matters in hand,” or when he spends the night with an old classmate who tells him she’s always dreamed of being his wife. Eventually Galip — and the novel as a whole — finds a sharper focus, as he finesses his way into Celal’s vacated apartment and begins to adopt the columnist’s mannerisms and identity. Before long, he is writing Celal’s columns for him, answering his telephone (as Celal) and wearing his pajamas to bed. Predictably, when he takes on Celal’s identity, Galip steps into the political fire.
An unidentified caller, who has memorized every word Celal has written, begins to ask him for a meeting, and then threatens to kill Celal. An old girlfriend of Celal calls having misinterpreted the messages in Galip’s latest entries as a plea to win her back. Galip believes that he’s being followed around town, and the tensions rise to a satisfying boil.
Still, “The Black Book” never quite becomes the sort of action-based crime novel that Galip so disdains, and, probably, that’s a good thing. Pamuk has said in interviews that he’d rather stay inside reading than go out in public and that attending a single party could cost him a week of work.
Much of Galip’s detective work takes the form of reading. He reads all of Ruya’s novels and then all of Celal’s columns. As the book progresses, the two voices of the novel become indistinguishable, eventually becoming one and the same.
In a chapter titled “Love Stories on a Snowy Evening,” Galip tells the story of “an old and unhappy Istanbullu” who falls in love so intensely with the hero of a novel by Proust that he believes first that he is the hero, and second that he is Proust. Galip, of course, has also made such a leap. As much as any single character, “The Black Book” is about Pamuk’s native land, a country purged of its history, and even its language, in the name of modernism. It is an unsparing and unromantic portrait of a citizenry caught between ancient and modern, East and West, secular and Islamic. Braiding his complex narratives — personal, political and cultural — Pamuk tells the same story in a dozen ways, creating notes that grow more resonant with each chapter. Much credit should be given to Freely’s translation, which never reads as such.
There is no doubt that “The Black Book” will present a challenge for a 21st century attention span, but that shouldn’t scare off readers. At his best, and he’s there quite often, Pamuk demonstrates a brilliance that places him on the small list of novelists likely to be read generations from now. For a book this long and densely detailed, you’ll find yourself after finishing “The Black Book” searching back — as I did — for particular scenes and passages, and going over them again, sometimes twice, believing — like the old Istanbullu — that it is your very thoughts you are reading.
Tom Barbash is the author of “On Top of the World: Cantor Fitzgerald, Howard Lutnik & 9/11” and the novel “The Last Good Chance,” which won a California Book Award.