Welcome to Istanbul, the magical, mystical portal to the East. What once was the home to an empire that sprawled from the Caspian Sea to Spain and the Atlantic Ocean now sits like a bride in her boudoir awaiting an answer from her latest suitor. Turkey has applied for membership in the European Union, but there has been a lot of foot-dragging over their human rights record. Part of the problem centres around the author of this book being threatened with imprisonment for writing what the government referred to as anti-Turkish sentiment. Turkey has long walked a line between the East and the West that she once both ruled with an iron fist. When the borders of the Ottoman Empire retracted back to modern Turkey with the loss of the Middle East at the end of World War I, Istanbul once more became the end of Europe and the beginning of the mysterious East.
Today we know of Turkey as the fiercely secular state, where the populace protests if the government even gives the appearance of merging church and state. How much different is the Istanbul of today from the Istanbul of the 1990s when Orhan Pamuk first wrote The Black Book? You might as well ask how much has the city changed since the times of the Crusades or later when the Saracens of the Ottoman Empire pushed the infidels back to where they came from.
Istanbul always strikes me as one of the timeless cities, with nooks and crannies where the dust of history lays thick, shoulder to shoulder with cars of chrome and bright paint. The Black Book in a new translation reissued by the Vintage International imprint of Random House makes that more than clear, as the city is more than just a setting, and becomes a character in her own right.
A brief synopsis of the story is deceptive in its simplicity; the lead character Galip, finds a nineteen-word message from his wife declaring she's left him. At the same time her older stepbrother, the famous newspaper columnist Celal has also disappeared. Have they vanished together or is their joint vanishing act nothing more than a bizarre coincidence?
Galip's search for Ruya takes on all the attributes of the cheap detective novels she loves and he despises. Chasing down the ghosts of her past, her leftist existence with her ex-husband leads him onto the trail of secret utopian societies. That they may have only existed in the minds of those who wrote about them in pamphlets and broadsides simply adds to the surreal quality with which he has imbibed the search. Through it all, he plays out a charade to sustain the illusion that she has not left him, but is home sick in bed.
His step brother-in-law must have had an inkling that he was going to miss work because he left a file of stories for them to run on a daily basis during his absence. However, Galip quickly recognises they have been published before and wonders at Celal not having taken the time to create new articles. If Celal is not present in the story of the novel, he is very present on the pages as a character through his writings. Every second chapter is an article written by Celal that takes us on guided tours of the author's favourite locations, his city of Istanbul, and the streets of his own mind and emotions. Identity has been prevalent in his mind, the identity of the city and his own, as we can tell from the stories that he has chosen to have the newspaper publish while he is "off."
Whether the stories tell about his early life and meeting with established columnists who share their secrets with him, or giving a guided tour of an imaginarily flooded Istanbul down to the details of where the corpses are buried, they are about quests for identity. Will Istanbul ever make up her mind to be of the East or of the West? Will she succumb to the blandishments and lure of Europe with her bright lights and movie stars, or will she stay the city where you can only buy what's been made in Turkey, and the commonest car on the streets is a 57 Chevrolet?
The identity is more than just idle speculation in journalist's daily column in The Black Book — it is the primary focus of Mr. Pamuk's novel. Was the job Celal, or was he the job? For a writer, is there a difference anyway?
Galip takes on the role of concerned husband to cover up the disappearance of his wife from their families, the role of detective in a mystery story when he is trying to track down her whereabouts, and finally he become Celal by starting to write his columns. By assuming Celal's identity, he is able to carry off the deception through being able to write in the same style. Is this a case of the clothes making the man, or is there more to it than meets the eye?
If anyone has any doubts about why Orhan Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, and questioned the result as being more about politics than talent, reading this book will set your mind at rest. Only very rarely have I read a work of any sort where I'm left with my jaw hanging open because of the seemingly effortless way in which the words follow each other on the page. Even though the book was translated into English, his talent for orchestrating thoughts and words into sentences that are works of art is still obvious and astounding. He creates phrases like a musician will write music; not only do they sound pleasant to the ear, but they touch your heart, and make you think. He shows his true artistry in how he orchestrates them into a whole.
Each little movement — conversation, descriptive passage, monologue, and so on — flows and interlocks with those around it until it builds to its crescendo and then subsides to the final denouement. This is no half-hazard arrangement that meanders around carelessly without concern for theme and plot. It may seem casual and relaxed in places, but don't be fooled by that. The reality is as different from that as night and day.
As some music can be played as background while you do other things, there are books that involve no effort to read and make no lasting impression. Then there are the ones demanding your full attention to be properly appreciated, but the return is transportation to new worlds of delight and wonder. The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk is one such book. No matter what your nationality, you won't want to deny yourself the pleasure of reading this book.