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Thoughts on “The Black Book” by Orhan Pamuk

World Party Reading Challenge BadgeI read The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk (translated by Maureen Freely) for the World Party Reading Challenge, as November’s country was Turkey. I certainly could have chosen an easier book, but I’d never read Pamuk and was feeling ambitious.

About the Book:

Galip lives with his wife, Rüya, in Istanbul, where Galip works as a lawyer and Rüya spends her days reading detective novels. The pair grew up together and still lives in the vicinity of their families and childhood homes. Galip is happy, and Rüya seems content enough.

Then one evening, Galip comes home to discover that Rüya, along with a very small number of her possessions, has disappeared. Consumed by his need to find her, Galip launches into an intense search, plunging into dark corners and old haunts, willing himself to find his wife. Shortly after Rüya disappears, Galip learns that no one has recently seen Celâl, his uncle and a famous newspaper columnist, either. Could the two disappearances be related?

My Thoughts:

The Black Book was not an easy novel for me to get through. I actually started referring to it as “work” and read it primarily in the evenings while my husband was working on what he’d brought home from his job. I had to force myself to sit and concentrate or I’d never have gotten past the first chapter. I always felt lost while reading The Black Book, though by the end I started to think maybe that was the point. I’m sure I could read The Black Book five more times before even beginning to scratch its dense, dark surface.

The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk (cover)The novel switches between Galip’s search and Celâl’s columns. This chapter-by-chapter alternation seemes random at first; only partway through the novel does the order begin to make a scattered sort of sense as the columns begin to enlighten the story. The columns become a sort of key with which Galip attempts to understand Rüya’s disappearance, and at the same time, they become a key for the reader as well. If only deciphering The Black Book were as easy as turning a key in a lock.

The Black Book tackles some pretty hefty themes: identity, memory and forgetting, history, and meaning. Mirrors, doubles, and copies are everywhere. It’s tough to tease the thread of one theme out of the tangle of the story; they stick together, melting into one another, forming a murky, amorphous mass. As Galip knocks against them, the structure and style of The Black Book ensures that the reader is right there beside him. I spent most of the book stuck in the same fog of confusion through which Galip was desperately fighting for clarity.

Pamuk seems to be inordinately fond of lists. Tedious as I sometimes found them, these lists often painted the clearest picture of Istanbul for me. For example, the sounds of the city:

“The din of the market, the beeping horns, the shouts and cries coming from the playground of a distant school, the knocking of hammers, the hum of engines, the screeches of sparrows and crows in the courtyard trees, the passing minibuses, the growling motorcycles, the opening and shutting of nearby windows and doors, the rattling of office buildings, houses, trees, and parks, the ships moving through the sea, entire neighborhoods, the entire city.” (p. 342-343)

Or a shopkeeper’s description of his diverse customers:

“He’d seen everything in his time–couples who’d been married for forty years arguing about lottery tickets, heavily made-up women who had to smell thirty different makes of soap before they bought a single bar, retired colonels who had to try out every whistle in the box before they found the one they wanted–but by now he was used to them; they didn’t bother him anymore. The housewife who grumbled because he did not stock a back issue of a photo novel whose last issue came out eleven years ago, the fat gentleman who licked his stamps before buying them so he could find out how the glue tasted, the butcher’s wife who’d come in only yesterday to return a crepe-paper carnation, complaining that it had no scent–none of these people bothered him anymore.” (p. 44)

It seems Pamuk is aware of his own propensity for list-making, though, as at one point Galip cuts someone off, “fearing that the voice on the phone might be launching into yet another of his endless lists” (p. 392). I loved that line, because I often found myself fearing the onset of another list!

The 2006 Vintage edition I read included an afterword by the translator, Maureen Freely. In its concise four pages she discussed her own background, the difficulties of translating Turkish (which lacks verbs for both to be and to have), and The Black Book‘s place in Istanbul’s history as well as among Pamuk’s other novels. I liked having the additional information but wish I’d read it before reading The Black Book instead of after.

The Black Book was one of the harder books I’ve taken on recently. I cannot say I loved it; it’s more that I feel I’ve accomplished something by finishing it. I do not regret my November choice. In fact, I own two others by Pamuk (My Name is Red and True Colors), and last weekend I picked up another (Snow). Now that I’ve gotten through one of his, my determination to read the others has only strengthened!

Bonus: A Bookmark!

I love finding odd things in used books: bookmarks, train tickets, shopping lists. Midway through The Black Book, I found this little card:

Black Book CardIt’s totally going into my collection.

Your Turn!

Have you ever read a book that took tremendous effort to read but which was rewarding and/or satisfying when you finally reached the end? What fun odds and ends have you come across in used (or borrowed) books?

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  • http://zenleaf.amandagignac.com Amanda

    Honestly I tried reading Snow by this same author, twice, and both times it was just so dense that it was boring. “Dense” and “difficult to read” seem to be modern indicators of “merit-worthy” which drives me crazy. Kind of like James Joyce. A book does not need to be overly complicated in order to be profound and literary and full of merit. We seem to forget that these days in the wake of a wave of mid-20th century classics which defied traditional storytelling and experimented heavily with style. We’ve somehow got the impression now that because people like James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner wrote very dense books, that dense is the only way to go.

    Okay I’ll end my rant now. It’s just something to drives me crazy.

    • Erin

      I definitely don’t think every dense book is “merit-worthy”. I’m usually quite annoyed by books that try to be dense just to come off as something special. For instance, I’ve sworn off Joyce forever. It very much depends for me on the book and the author. There was something about The Black Book that, while challenging me, made me want to try Pamuk’s other novels. I do think there are dense books as well as not dense books that are worthy of merit, and I think the choice of which books are merit-worthy is ultimately up to the individual reader. That being said, I may end up changing my mind about Pamuk after I attempt another of his books…we’ll see!

  • http://www.stephandtonyinvestigate.com Steph

    Oh, now I’m a bit scared to try Pamuk… I have Snow, but your review of his writing as well as Amanda’s comment have me quaking in my boots. I didn’t think he would be that challenging, but now I’m having second thoughts. Must regroup and regather my courage! I’m sure you felt amazing when you finished this one.

    • Erin

      Don’t be scared! At least, not until you give him a try :-) To me, The Black Book was challenging but not scary. I actually just acquired a copy of Snow and hope to read it at some point. Maybe we need a readalong? I hope your courage comes back easily!

  • http://www.ragingbibliomania.net/ zibilee

    I am so intimidated by Pamuk and his writing, but I don’t want that to keep that from stopping me from reading one of his books. Your reaction to this book sounds a lot like how I felt about Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. A great, great book, but I know that I only understood about a half to a third of it. Great review! I want to try this out for myself now!

    • Erin

      Oh, Salman Rushdie is another one I have to tackle! I expect to feel the same way I feel about him that I felt about Pamuk. That’s a great comparison! When you do get to something by Pamuk, I hope you enjoy it!