I started reading Pamuk’s The Black Book almost a month back. Well, I was reading the old translation. Mid way through it, my cousin, who was visiting, gifted me a copy of Maureen Freely’s new translation and so I started from scratch. The translation by Freely is excellent. The Black Book, unlike the stark prose of Snow, is lyrical and full of imagery. It reminded me of My Name is Red.
The book tells the story of Galip, an Istanbul lawyer whose wife Rüya has suddenly disappeared leaving only a nineteen letter goodbye note. Somewhere down the line Galip suspects she has run away with their cousin Celal, a famous newspaper columnist. The key to locating them he believes is understanding Celal and deciphering the clues that he dots his columns with. The blurb on the back cover of the book says, “Dazzling…turns the detective novel on its head.” Apt perhaps, because the book doesn’t follow the conventional detective style in the least. At one point Galip tells Rüya that the only detective novel he’d ever want to read would be the one in which even the author doesn’t know murderer’s identity. There would be no planted clues or red herrings. Needless to say, that is the book that Pamuk has written. The book follows two paths. The chapters alternate between Celal’s columns and Galip’s search, eventually converging.
Celal’s columns are what made Black Book special for me. They are so wonderfully written that each one of them reads as a beautiful short story. Fantastical stories about the Bosporus, ottoman sultans, and mystic Sufi sects, they are all here. One of the most beautiful is “A Story About People Who Can't Tell Stories.”
“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. You can even imagine your own face in those faces, cant you? How many we are, how much anguish we all carry, and how helpless most of us are in the face of the world! ”
At its heart The Black Book is a book about identity. About Galip whose search for Celal becomes a search for himself. And Celal’s columns which chronicle a city’s history, Istanbul’s identity. One of the stories in the book is about a nineteenth-century prince who tries to become himself by getting rid of people, books, furniture, anything that might influence him and make him less of himself. He envies the “stones in the desert for just being themselves,” until he dies in an empty room painted white. From a book rich in mystical Sufism, it’s a not so subtle hint at the politics of the Turkish Republic. I also found it amusing that both the protagonists of the story are named after Sufi saints. Their object of affection Rüya, a dream.
More than Istanbul, it’s The Black Book which is a true tribute to the city. Turkish movie stars, prostitutes, dolmuses, jetty rides on the Sea of Marmara, people sitting in cafes and eating helva -its almost like living in the Istanbul of the late ’70s. I am still undecided on whether The Black Book works as a “book”, rather than as a tribute to Istanbul or as an encyclopaedia on Sufism, but then that’s beside the point. It’s a glorious read.
P.S: Today’s New York Times travel section has a wonderful article on Istanbul. One of the Turkish exchange students in school refuses to believe that I have never been to Istanbul. “But you even know the streets!” Blame it on Pamuk. And also the fact that I read the Lonely Planet guide to the city cover to cover. I am still upset my trip didn’t work out. I want to visit so much! *wails*