Analysis of Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book

In Turkey, where writer Orhan Pamuk (1952– ) is a foremost intellectual figure, the novel The Black Book has been praised and attacked by both left-wing and conservative critics and columnists. The work has also generated extensive debates about Turkish modernization and secularism as well as Islamic traditions. The Black Book, which was awarded the Prix France Culture in 1991, received accolades from Western critics who acknowledged Pamuk as the “eastern” counterpart to Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, and Gabriel García Márquez—a label the Turkish author finds “as unsatisfactory as describing a new fruit as somewhere between a peach and an orange.” Pamuk was the recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature in 2006.

Orhan Pamuk

Pamuk in New York City, October 12, 2006.Photograph by Spencer Platt / Getty

Set in contemporary Istanbul, The Black Book is a nostalgic, intimate travelogue through the laced intricacies of modern Turkish identity, closely mirrored by the city’s labyrinthine topography. The novel is framed as a fragmented detective story: On a winter night, Galip, an Istanbul lawyer, returns home to find that his wife, Rüya, has disappeared. So has Rüya’s half brother Jelal, a famous Istanbul columnist whose life and journalistic fame Galip secretly covets. While trying to retrace Rüya and Jelal’s steps, Galip enters the maze of the city with its subterranean passageways, central wealthy neighborhoods, and neglected marginal shantytowns, all rich with riddles, centuries-old secrets, and misleading clues. Galip’s subsequent encounters—with a mannequin maker, an erstwhile Marxist militant, a retired army colonel interested in Sufism, a film celebrity– look-alike prostitute with a religious penchant, and a BBC team set to make a documentary on Jelal— engender intertwined and contradictory accounts of the fraught relationships between East and West, history, religion, and metaphysical inquiries into memory, identity, and contemporary Turkish realities.

According to Pamuk, Istanbul is in “a mesmerizing state of ruin.” Bathed in neglect, among the wrecks and ghosts of past inhabitants or travelers and the “waste” of modern Western pop culture (“We Lost Our Memories at the Movies”), the city is in danger of “drying up.” It is consumed by its own impossible ambition to keep up with a reality in which East and West, past and present, are continuously tearing each other apart. In one of his columns (“The Day the Bosphorus Dries Up”), Jelal writes about the city on the Golden Horn: “On the last day, when the waters suddenly recede, among the American transatlantics gone to ground and Ionic columns covered with seaweed, there will be Celtic and Ligurian skeletons. . . . Amidst mussel-encrusted Byzantine treasures . . . and soda-pop bottles, I can imagine a civilization whose energy needs . . . will be derived from a dilapidated Romanian tanker propelled into a mire-pit.”

This parallels the case of Turkish identity, torn between ancestral, Muslim customs and beliefs and Atatürk’s efforts to Westernize and secularize the Turkish state. The chapter titled “Do you remember me?” recounts the story of an Istanbul mannequin maker who informs the Western visitors to his underground, muddy, and dusty shop that his establishment is “an indicator of the Turkish achievement concerning modernization and industrialization.” “All parts are made in Turkey,” he adds. The shop houses a micro-universe of unwanted mannequins, remnants of a civilization that has seemingly gone to waste. The wax and wooden life-like figures were banned from the above-ground realm, first by a “narrow-minded Sheik of Islam” and then by modern-day consumer culture, for they resemble Turkish people “too much.” The mannequin maker sadly remarks that there are “historical forces which are against letting our nation be itself, in an effort to deprive us of our daily gestures which are our most precious treasure.” However, as the underground multileveled structure of the city reveals, Turkish identity also has its subterranean passageways that “had always managed to wreak vengeance” on the surface level for having pushed it below. The identity conflict, Pamuk suggests, resides inside as much as outside.

The main narrative points of view in the novel alternate between Jelal’s columns and Galip’s stories and metaphysical inquiries rendered by an omnipresent narrator; in the end, the narrative voices collapse into a Jelal-Galip synchretic identity. The central female character is given no plausible existence. Rüya (“dream” in Turkish) exists only in Galip’s version of the story. Described as obsessed with modern detective novels, Rüya is the silent heroine-victim of an unresolved, postmodern story of that genre.

Pamuk is a compelling writer who is not afraid to play with and display his influences, from Scheherazade (the Persian fictional storyteller of The Book of One Thousand and One Nights) and Sufi poets to Gustave Flaubert and Marcel Proust. Pamuk is a profuse master storyteller—an enabler of other people’s stories— and an observer of intimate spaces—“museums” of Turkish daily life. In the final analysis, Pamuk is à la recherche of things past. It is precisely a lack that is at the origins of this story: the disappearance of Rüyadream (an Albertine-like character from Proust), and also a nostalgia for the empire—the faded glory of the Ottomans, with their rich and inimitable customs.

Freeman, John. “In Snow, an Apolitical Poet Mirrors Apolitical Pamuk.” Village Voice, 17 August 2004.
Pamuk, Orhan. “The Anger of the Damned.” New York Review of Books, 15 November 2001.
———. The Black Book. Translated by Güneli Gün. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1996.
———. “Freedom to Write.” New York Review of Books. 25 May 2006.
———. Istanbul: Memories of a City. Translated by Maureen Freely. London: Faber and Faber, 2005.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis, Turkish Literature

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