Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book is a sad, serious novel centring on intensive, lengthy exploration of two or three Very Big Ideas. It is beautifully written, without doubt; lyrical and poetic; and brings to life its setting – Istanbul – in a different and striking way on every page. I think this is a good example:
When Galip became aware that the darkness was slowly being dispelled, the city itself seemed to retain the night for a long time like the dark side of a distant planet. Some time later he thought, as he shivered with the cold, that the light that reflected off the chimney smoke, the walls of the mosque, and the piles of concrete did not originate from somewhere outside of the city but leaked out from somewhere within it. Just as on the surface of a planet that was still being formed, it felt as if the uneven pieces of the city buried under concrete, stone, wood, plexiglass, and domes might slowly part and the flame-coloured light of the mysterious underground seep through the darkness.
The story of the novel, such as there is one, tells of a young lawyer – Galip – and his quest to understand why his wife has suddenly and mysteriously left him. The journey, both an actual journey round and round the streets of Istanbul, and a figurative journey of self-discovery, has as its main character Galip’s cousin, a famous newspaper columnist with a distinctly philosophical bent.
Every other chapter of the book is one of the cousin’s columns, and as the pages turn the ‘real’ life of Galip’s investigation becomes ever more closely intertwined with the people, places, ideas and events described in the columns. Even Galip and his cousin themselves begin to merge into one.
This is a novel first about identity and second about the mutable nature of reality. What does it mean to ‘be oneself’? If we spend enough time – whether as individuals or even as a nation – imitating another, do we cease to exist? How does writing shape and influence the world around us? What do objects signify? Do you need to really know someone to love them?
I found The Black Book quite heavy-going at times. In common with Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Pamuk includes myriad shorter stories within the overarching tale, whether told in the cousin’s columns or by the people that Galip meets (or even by Galip himself). While the overall effect achieved by this nested structure is impressive – demonstrating the fundamental interconnectedness of the fictive and factual worlds, bridged as they are by ideas – it doesn’t make for an easy read.
With this said there’s a very satisfying point, which for me occurred about two-thirds of the way through, where Pamuk’s ambition becomes clearer, and after that I found myself pacing hungrily through the later chapters in anticipation of the conclusion. This is, let’s just say, a novel in which the author is willing to push his central proposition – inconstancy of identity – to its logical conclusion.