Orhan Pamuk: Yeni Hayat (The New Life)
While this book was a runaway success in Turkey, Western readers were less enthusiastic. It’s easy to see why, as it is a thoroughly post-modern novel, with puzzles, ambiguity, a touch of magic realism and lots of unexplained events. As in his other books, identity is a key theme but love and the desire of humans to look for something, even if they are not sure what they are looking for, are also important.
Osman, our hero/narrator, tells us in the very first sentence that he has read a book and that it has totally changed his life. We never learn what exactly the book is, though we learn (we think) who wrote it and some of the books that influenced it. Suffice it to say that the book changes not only his own life but also the lives of many others. Osman is a university student of engineering in Istanbul and lives with his widowed mother (his father having died the previous year, after a life of working on the railways). One day he sees a book in the possession of an architecture student, Janan, and, when he sees the book at a nearby bookstall, he buys it. After having read it, he confronts Janan about it and immediately falls in love with her. He tells her how the book has changed his whole life. She introduces him to Mehmet who has apparently been to the world mentioned in the book and returned. Soon afterwards, he sees the two of them outside the building and then, as Janan goes her own way, he sees a man shoot Mehmet. He goes to the spot but can find no trace of Janan or Mehmet and no trace evidence of the shooting (there are no witnesses). He subsequently tries to track down the two of them but without success.
Fearing that she has left Istanbul, he randomly sets out on a bus to find her and travels around Turkey on buses. He witnesses accidents and is involved in them, supplementing his income by stealing from the victims. Finally, at the site of one accident, Janan comes out of the door of the wrecked bus in a bloodstained dress, alive, though slightly injured. He learns that she is in love with Mehmet and has been looking for him. The pair continue travelling around Turkey, this time looking for Mehmet. And, all the while, the influence of the book, though little talked about, hangs over them, as does the image of the angel in the book. Eventually, they come across another major accident and steal the identities of a dead young couple who, before they die, admit that they have also read the book and are travelling like Osman, Janan and Mehmet because of the book. They tell Janan and Osman that they have to go to Güdül in their stead, as a secret convention is being held there, where they will meet Dr Fine, who is key to the book.
Osman and Janan go to Güdül and meet Dr. Fine. Dr. Fine has three daughters but his son, Nahit, was killed in an accident. It turns out that Nahit is, of course, Mehmet. Dr. Fine is aware of the book and believes that is responsible for the death of his son and the death of others and is determined to eradicate the book and those who sell it including Mehmet, unaware of Mehmet’s identity and unaware that his son is still alive. When Janan becomes ill, Osman sets out to find Mehmet and, using a gun given him by Dr. Fine, plans to kill his rival for Janan. The rest of the book is Osman’s continued quest – for Mehmet, for Janan, for the maker of New Life caramels, for some sort of meaning in his life.
Pamuk does not gives us any easy answers. We are all looking for a new life, he says, though we normally don’t know what it is or where to find it or are able to recognise it when we have found it. Osman, Janan, Mehmet, the possible author of the book and the other main characters do not have happy lives, all the time looking for something that they cannot really hope to find. It is Pamuk’s skill to give us the dark side of the Turkish dream in such an imaginative way that makes him one of the foremost contemporary writers.
First published in 1994 by İletişim
First English translation 1997 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Faber & Faber
Translated by Güneli Gün