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Orhan Pamuk: Kara Kitap (The Black Book)

I have to admit that there is no book I enjoy reading more than one that a) gives us a glimpse into a city we do not normally see and b) plays around with a host of fascinating ideas. Pamuk’s novel does this in spades. Like most Westerners, my image of Istanbul is the one I saw when I visited as a tourist. Pamuk is not, of course, concerned with the Istanbul of Topkapi, Hagia Sophia (though it is mentioned) and the other usual tourist sites, though the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bosphorus do figure quite strongly. Our narrator/hero, Galip (presumably named after the Turkish poet Şeyh Galip, who is quoted on several occasions) travels through Istanbul, searching for his wife/cousin, Rüya (it means dream in Turkish) and his cousin/brother-in-law, Jelal, showing us the real Istanbul, while Jelal’s newspaper columns give us a portrait of the literary and historical Istanbul that most Westerners are completely ignorant of. This in itself makes the book a joy but there is a lot more.

Galip is a lawyer. As a child he got to know his cousin (strictly speaking, his half-cousin), Rüya, when she and her family came to live in Istanbul. The two went around together and Galip soon fell in love with his cousin. (Pamuk makes it clear that cousins marrying one another is quite common in Turkey.) However, Rüya initially married a left-wing activist and helped him in his work. She eventually left him and married Galip. She spends most of her time reading detective novels, often in bad translations. The family has remained close, having dinner once a week at an aunt’s house. Jelal, Rüya’s half-brother, is twenty years older than Rüya and Galip and writes a daily column for Milliyet. His columns, which seem to attract a huge following (Galip has read every one of them, for example), cover Istanbul’s and Turkish literature and history, investigations of crimes and general discourses on life. At the beginning of the novel, Rüya has left Galip (she has left a brief note, saying that she will keep in touch) and Jelal has disappeared. No-one seems to know where Jelal actually lives (he may have several apartments in the city); however, he has not shown up to work and the newspaper has taken to publishing old columns which he has left in a folder. The novel is primarily about Galip’s attempts to track down Rüya and Jelal, convinced, as he is, that there is a connection between their respective disappearances. Mixed in with his search are selections from Jelal’s columns.

Galip initially covers up both Rüya’s and Jelal’s disappearance. For example, a BBC film crew wishes to interview Jelal and Galip promises to deliver Jelal. When he cannot, he first makes excuses and then pretends to be Jelal. Similarly, when people enquire about Rüya, he pretends that she is ill (e.g. to his aunt, when she does not come to the weekly dinner) or even pretends to speak to her on the phone. Meanwhile, he tries to track the pair down, going to places where they have been together and trying to locate Jelal’s various apartments. When he eventually finds one of Jelal’s apartments – a newspaper on the floor indicates that the last time Jelal was there was the day he disappeared – he himself moves in and eventually takes over Jelal’s identity. He wears Jelal’s clothes. When an irate reader of Jelal’s columns phones to speak to Jelal, Galip pretends to be Jelal and spends much time in arguing with the man and, later, with the man’s wife. Eventually, of course, he takes over Jelal’s column, pretending to the newspaper that Jelal had left behind a large backlog.

Galip’s search – a detective story, if you will – and Jelal’s columns are merely an excuse to hang Pamuk’s rich collection of ideas on. As well as showing the interesting facets of Istanbul, he is concerned with a host of other ideas. The main issue is the question of identity. One phrase keeps appearing throughout the book – Can you be yourself? – and Galip and others struggle with this. Galip, of course, assumes his cousin’s identity but Jelal has assumed several identities himself, disguising himself during his nocturnal rambles, seeking out stories. But the idea comes through in many other ways. We learn, for example, that all but one of the sultans used to wander round Istanbul in disguise and even get to hear the story of the False Pasha, covering for the real Pasha, till the two finally meet. We hear about the prostitutes, whom Galip visits, who pretend to be famous Turkish film stars to turn their clients on. We learn about the beautiful mannequins made by a Turk, which are rejected because they look like Turks, whereas Turks really want to look like Westerners.

This brings us to another theme, namely the inferiority complex Turks often have towards Westerners. Their models – in literature, clothing, films and so on – are often Westerners. Jelal, in his column, tries to address this issue and has deliberately avoided learning a foreign language for this reason, though has recently started to learn French. Nationalism is often bubbling under, including a plot we learn about which may or may not be about to take place. Which leads to the next theme, a favourite post-modernist one, namely the flimsy boundary between reality and fiction, which Jelal and Galip both struggle with. Another favourite post-modernist theme, language, is also prevalent, though in a special Turkish way. Hurufism is mentioned several times in Jelal’s columns. It is concerned with the letters of the alphabet and Pamuk plays with this, particularly the idea that faces are made up of various letters (Arabic or Roman script) and can show the meaning of a person.

Ideas, wonderful Arabian Nights-like tales, a storied trip around Istanbul, a detective story with no real satisfactory conclusion, a dip into Turkish politics and history, all these and more make this a fascinating read for anyone. Westerners may struggle with some of the references but it will be a wonderful learning experience and they cannot but fail to enjoy this novel.

Publishing history

First published in 1990 by Can Yayınları
First English translation 1994 by Farrar, Straus/Faber & Faber