The Black Book

For The Sunday Salon

Well, that’s life. You wait and wait for the ending of a novel so you can blog about it and then two come along at once. I was going to write about Beth Janzen’s poetry today but having just finished Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book, I feel compelled to get my thoughts into some kind of order on this most labyrinthine of narratives. It was undeniably a difficult read, an agonizingly slow read in places (I like to make swift progress through my novels when possible), a rich, tantalizing, verbose, challenging postmodern read, but I laid the book down afterwards with a sense of reverence for it, and a kind of gratitude for its existence in the world. Pamuk has been compared to Borges and Kafka, and that seems right to me, if we are talking about the quality and the complexity of the postmodern games he plays with his writing, and so long as we recognize the tremendous differences between the three authors. Unlike Kafka and Borges, Pamuk locates his stories in a very real location, lovingly and comprehensively described, and within a cultural ideology in transition, which is repeatedly challenged and satirized. There is also, in this novel at least, a deep, melancholy tenderness for love and its loss that underpins the literary antics and makes this that most unusual hybrid, a postmodern novel with a beating, bleeding heart.


The basic plotline is very simple: Galip, a lawyer and a rather hopeless character, returns home one night to find that his beloved wife, Rüya, has left him. Rüya’s half brother and Galip’s cousin, Celâl, who happens to be a very well-known political columnist, has also disappeared, and Galip takes it into his head that the two have gone into hiding together. Pretending to his family that Rüya is ill in bed he begins a tortuous hunt for Celâl (mimicking the detectives in the cheap novels Rüya loves so much), reading through everything he has written in search of clues, and eventually moving into his rooms and writing his newspaper columns for him. The story of Galip’s quest for his missing family is interspersed with columns that Celâl has written, each one a self contained story or meditation on an aspect of identity, religion, politics or the secret life of Istanbul. That’s the simple part. What makes this novel so complex is the relentless questioning about the links between life and storytelling that happens even at the level of the sentence. This is the kind of book where you can start reading at the top of the page, and by the time you are two-thirds of the way down, the sentence has meandered through so many mini-stories already that you realize you are lost and have to trace your way back. On the one hand there is a postmodern point to this (which I’ll come to in a minute), but on the other, the Turkish language itself is syntactically structured to encourage such confusion. In a fascinating translator’s note at the end of the text, Maureen Freely explains that in the Turkish language there is no verb to be, nor a verb to have; there are multiple tenses, ‘you use one mode for events you have witnessed with your own eyes, for example, and another for anything you know by hearsay…. The passive voice is as graceful as the active voice and rather more popular, with the result that a fine Turkish sentence may choose to obscure exactly who did what. It may also decline to be precise about gender, there being only one word for he, she and it. Add to this the vogue among Turkey’s leading writers for the devrik cümle. This is a sentence – usually a very long sentence – in which words appear in an order different from that ordained by custom and practice, and cascading clauses create a series of expectations that are subverted by the verb at the very end. The poet Murat Nemet-Nejat has described Turkish as a language that can evoke a thought unfolding.’


What a translation nightmare! And yet what a language in which to express the postmodern condition. If you don’t know what postmodernism is, this book teaches it to you as you go along. There are a number of persistent obsessions in both narratives (Galip’s and Celâl’s) that function as exemplary postmodern issues, two of which are that you can never be yourself and that all things have at their basis a mystery that calls out for interpretation but resists it at the same time. In one of the last interpolated stories, the Crown Prince determines that his great mission in life is to be himself and so he spends sixteen years in seclusion with his scribe, reading books to educate himself then burning them as the words inside his mind are now quotations from other people, and then reading more books to erase the original words, and burning them too. He spends the rest of his time trying to write his own story in his own voice, returning to the same sentences and rewriting them over and over again in the search for authenticity, until eventually he dies, alone in a room that is empty and painted white. So this parable, like many others, tells us that our private identity is fabricated out of a public language, a language that shapes us at the same time as it offers us the freedom to find and express ourselves. What we need language for is to make sense of our existence, for at the heart of this bewildering life is a particular essence, a quality, a secret if you like, that we strain to understand, but which we cannot seem to properly unpack, no matter how many times we delve deep into the rummage rooms of our souls. We need stories to help us come to terms with life, we have no other way to communicate the events that happen to us than through the medium of narrative. But ‘meaning’ consistently eludes us by its instability, its multiplicity and the way it always seems to lie outside the story itself, contained in words (when we try to express it) that the story never used.


The absolute necessity of stories to give us some grip on life, and their internal limitations and frustrations is a theme that is applied to all the myriad, sparkling, exotic little stories that compose the patchwork tapestry of the book, and these stories approach but fail to solve the mysteries of Istanbul and the Turkish nation, as well as the disappearance of Rüya and Celâl. We are tempted with the belief that these master narratives about culture and identity hold the key to the private stories of individuals, but the mystery whose elucidation would seem to hold all the answers is a mystery that needs to be respected; to break open the mystery would not be resolution but rather the internal collapse of the whole system of identity, life and literature.


Pamuk trained initially to be an architect and there is a particularly architectural view of storytelling at work here. We can think of the story as being the framework that encloses the mysterious space within, but we can also think of mystery as being the space that holds up the whole framework of the building. But just as the reader is convinced that there will be nothing but endless play, the ending surprises by its concrete and tragic events. And this is what makes Pamuk such an interesting author for me, because he eschews the tendency of the postmodern to become so cerebral as to lose all grounding in reality, and so enamoured of elusiveness and multiplicity that the story exhausts all its possibilities and exhausts the reader’s patience as well. Instead he reminds us regularly that this is the story of a man who is grieving deeply for a woman he adored but who did not really love him in return, and the great scaffolding of storytelling that he erects over the grave of his loss is only there to mask and to gesture towards all that he cannot say. The narrator mourns his lost beloved, and on other levels he mourns the Westernisation of Turkey, and its current political unrest, and the history of bloodshed and violence on which it is built. And he does so as a man like any other, trying to divine the meaning in the world around him, trying to tell stories that are deeply embedded in his culture and his life, trying to work out who he is and what he wants whilst fighting at all times the pull towards inauthenticity, confusion, and meaninglessness. The glorious pyrotechnics of Pamuk’s prose explode in beautiful, multicoloured profusion, and leave billowing clouds of smoke and the echo of gunfire behind. I can see why Pamuk was awarded the Nobel prize, and all I can say is that I think he richly deserved it.


13 thoughts on “The Black Book

  1. What a fantastic review Litlove! I admit I’ve had trouble with Pamuk (tried unsuccessfully to read Snow) so can’t really discuss but your review makes me want to try again. I think I’ll save this title to nominate to one of my book groups. It seems like it would be a book perfect for discussion.

  2. Thank you so much! Pamuk really IS hard, but I found the key was to go very slowly with him. I’d even suggest to your book group that you read a portion of the book rather than its entirety. All of Celal’s stories are self-contained and perfect postmodern vehicles, so you could easily pick five or so to read and discuss (and there would be plenty to say), with of course the option to read the whole novel if it was going well. I felt Pamuk was certainly worth the effort it takes. And do blog about how you get on if you do read it!

  3. This is wonderful. Thank you. I keep meaning to read Pamuk and then finding that the moment has slipped past. From what you say here I think I’m going to wait until I’ve finished teaching and know that I can give him the uninterrupted time that it’s obvious he’s going to call for. This did make me think of two quotes though that I used with the students. The first is Barbara Hardy’s well known assertion that ‘narrative is a primary act of mind’. It is simply the way in which we make sense of the world around us. And the other is Pullman’s Carnegie acceptance speech where he says ‘stories are vital. Stories never fail us because, as Isaac Bashevis Singer says, ‘events never grow stale.’ There is more wisdom in a story than in volumes of philosophy…We don’t need lists of rights and wrongs, tables of do’s and don’t’s: we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.’

  4. Elucidation on a difficult topic. I got much of this from the novel, but I could never have explained it with the clarity given here. I have to use other muddier ways. I do think you are right when you say that Pamuk’s grounding of the story in an actuality and a protagonist with a real emotional life, history and quest, makes the novel more reachable than other such works, which I’ve given up on in the past. I wondered if Istanbul, from deep dungeon cellars and passageways to the tops of religious buildings and living quarters and out into the sea, might be a metaphor for the novel itself, which holds together a mass of events and times which we encounter as we wander its streets and buildings. I liked the Crown Prince’s story and his palace. If I remember correctly (big effort), it had twin staircases which allowed him to circulate, high and low, round and round, like his efforts to pin down his self, but I could be wrong. I think you were right to take your time and I’d advise anyone else to do the same – it’s a rich banquet of a book. I think a sense of astonishment propelled me on. I keep looking at My Name is Red and one day, but not just yet!

  5. Ann – those are just wonderful quotes. When I started writing this post, I was going to write that it was the most cerebral book I’d read in a long time, but then I had to hesitate as I realised the extent to which it is a moving read (particularly at the end). But the emotion is always gestured towards, beyond the story. But what stories they were! There were several I could have blogged about individually. Bookboxed – I have to thank you for encouraging me to read this. It was a magnificent book and a real literary experience. What you say about Istanbul, and about the Crown Prince’s palace is both accurate and very perceptive. I loved the way that Pamuk uses analogy so cleverly, to make the levels of his text echo one another in rich and confusing ways. I know just what you mean about My Name is Red. Oh yes, I will, but just not now!

  6. I’ve read Snow, but The Black Book sounds like another kind of work entirely. There were certainly postmodern elements in Snow, but it seemed to be more of a traditional novel than this one. And yes, a translation nightmare indeed! Your description makes the Turkish language sound utterly fascinating.

  7. Dorothy – didn’t Turkish sound intriguing?? And then I thought, no way, no way on earth would I be able to master a language that complicated! I’d very much like to read Snow, but I think most of all I’d like to read Pamuk’s collection of essays on Istanbul first.

  8. Like Dorothy I’ve read Snow too. I enjoyed it very much but just haven’t gotten around to reading anything else by Pamuk. I really wish you would stop reading such good books Litlove. I just can’t keep up! 🙂

  9. I read The Black Book last year and it is among my favorite novels. Indeed, it is the only novel that I’ve ever started re-reading again just after I finished it. So, I actually read it twice last year. I’ve read 3 others by Pamuk so far and The Black Book is clearly my favorite though all the others are wonderful, too.

  10. What a wonderful review. You pinpoint *exactly* why I love Pamuk: the beating bleeding heart that is always at the heart of his postmodern play. Resolved to get the new translation by Maureen Freely and have another go at The Black Book asap.

  11. Stefanie – earlier in the day when I read your comment I was going to reply, oh you’ll be fine for a while now, but then I’ve just finished another Josipovici novel…. I didn’t see that coming, honest! Jeff – it is the kind of novel you could regularly reread, isn’t it? It is just so rich. I’d very much like to return to it again, and write more on it. Oh for more reading time in the day! Jean – Freely talks in her translator’s note about how the previous translation was rather opaque. I think hers is just wonderful because it reads so very smoothly. But I then went to check out her novels on amazon and the reviews there were awful, which surprised me no end. But I digress; if you feel like giving it another go, definitely read the Freely version and do blog about how you get on. I’d love to know what you think of it!

  12. But did he find his wife and cousin? No, don’t tell me in case I read this! 🙂 I’ve been wanting to read Pamuk’s work, but now I’m wondering if it wouldn’t be too difficult. I love how you describe the Turkish language. It sounds amazing–they must truly have an entirely different mindset and way of thinking about the world, don’t you think?! How do you even begin to translate a book like this. Still, I’d like to give him a try.

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