Iletisim Publishing
Dark and Fantastic Invention

By Patrick McGrath

Orhan Pamuk's The Black Book, translated by Guneli Gun, is a novel so dense it will deter all but the most tenacious of readers. Set in contemporary Istanbul, whose sensual aspect is pungently evoked throughout, it dispenses at once with any idea of an unencumbered narrative line. Rather, the many stories it tells are at the service of a sustained, metaphysical disquisition on the twin themes of meaning and identity. Structurally the book is labyrinthine, and the experience of reading it is correspondingly convoluted. Here be marvelous monsters all right, but for much of the time one gropes in darkness—one goes round in circles—one despairs of finding a way out.

The protagonist of The Black Book is a young small­time lawyer called Galip who comes home to his modest apartment one day to discover that his wife, Ruya, a reader of detective novels, has left him. Galip is part of a large, eccentric, extended family that includes Jelal, a well-known newspaper journalist. Jelal's columns alternate chapter by chapter with Galip's story, each fresh piece of journalism carrying obscure implications for the quest Galip undertakes.

An early, vivid instance of Jelal's work is entitled "The Day the Bosphorus Dries Up." Like much of The Black Book, this is a glorious flight of dark, fantastic invention. The writer develops the idea that "a short time from now, the paradise we call the Bosphorus will turn into a pitch-black swamp in which the mud-caked skeletons of galleons will gleam like the luminous teeth of ghosts." In the hellish, muddy, foul-smelling channel Jelal imagines coming upon the Black Cadillac, "the trophy car of a Beyoglu hood," who drove the magnificent vehicle into the Bosphorus to escape the cops.

Jelal strikes a match. In the darkness he observes "the embracing skeletons of the hood and his moll kissing in the front seat, her braceleted slim arms and ringed fingers around his, in the metallic light of the gorgeous steering wheel that still shines like the Crusaders' armor, and the meters, dials, and clocks dripping with chrome. Not only will their jaws be clasped together, their skulls, too, will have welded together in an eternal kiss."

Here we have not only an example of the wonderfully macabre imagery the novel abounds in but a couple of its incidental themes as well: death, of course, which permeates this black book like a fog; and also, with the picture of this most American of cars sinking in Eurasian waters, a literalized instance of the cultural collision of East and West. The issue of Turkish national identity, a political idea, will run steadily through the novel, in counterpoint to its dominant metaphysical theme.

The spine of the book is Galip's search for Ruya. He drifts through a long series of bizarre experiences, in bizarre settings, and at each stage we find reinforced the idea that personal as well as national identity is inherently unstable. Orhan Pamuk, author of the highly acclaimed The White Castle, is a masterly writer of fiction, with a vigorous Gothic imagination, but compression and brevity are not among his strong suits. He exhaustively catalogues what seems like every literary trope pertaining to the complicated relationship of appearance and reality.

So it is that Ruya "scarfs up" her detective novel, and we recognize that this is the genre concerned with the relentless pursuit, through clues, of "the truth." Then there is the "morbid history" of the maker of mannequins who calls his creations his children. "His son . . . showed us these mannequins one by one, explaining that our 'essence,' that which makes us 'us,' was reposited in these peculiar dusty masterpieces."

The son of the mannequin maker also tells Galip that with the introduction into their country of Hollywood movies—with their alien gestures, their "impure, cross­bred . . . false movements"—Turks have been robbed of their "authenticity." Again, the idea of national identity, and its frailty, is woven into the larger pattern. Some time later Galip finds himself in a brothel among movie-star lookalikes, and a woman resembling an actress whose name he can't quite remember seduces him. To hammer home the idea of multiple identity, the author has her say everything twice.

A brothel full of movie-star lookalikes is an eerie but hilarious idea, one that most elegantly entwines the political and ontological strands of the novel. But in details like the speech doubling, a sort of overdetermination creeps in, as though the author fears we might otherwise miss the point. This is symptomatic of a general malaise of repetitiveness in the novel, which tends to clog the narrative and weary the reader. Language itself is discovered to be not what it seems but is instead alive with hidden figures like the logogriph, a word chain formed on the first and last syllables of sentences or a sentence formed from the first and last words in paragraphs.

Hedged in, then, by a wild overabundance of symbols, Galip's simple attempt to find his fugitive wife cannot help but assume the dimensions of a vast epistemological research project. An obscure medieval set of teachings called Hurufism enters the story, and Galip encounters the idea that the human face contains hidden letters which, when read, reveal the identity behind the face. Slowly he metamorphoses into Jelal, to the extent of writing his columns. "Sometimes when I remember one of the stories in these pages," he says in the closing pages, "... I end up recalling some other story in which the only way to be oneself is by becoming another or by losing one's way in another's tales."

This is certainly the feeling one has on emerging from this great knot of a novel. Still, The Black Book offers many pleasures, Gothic, Borgesian and other, the best of which perhaps is a vision of Istanbul as a city of sinister complexity, a peculiarly Turkish maze with an uneasy, shifting foundation.

Patrick McGrath's most recent novel is "Dr. Haggard's Disease."