The Black Book, by Orhan Pamuk

My husband and I read Orhan Pamuk’s Snow together some twentyyears ago. In my memory we started it during a 2003 visit to Turkey, which coincided with a late February snowfall. Clearly this is the power of suggestion at work, as it recently came to my attention that the English translation was published in 2004.

Whatever our setting or the weather, I found the book’sethereal narrative almost as enigmatic as the facts of publication now reveal my memory of its reading to be. But a brief return to Istanbul last year renewed my interest in Pamuk’s works despite their, to me, elusive quality. An enchanting three-day sojourn in Istanbul left me wanting to read something that would reflect the ethos of our travels. A few days later I stumbled upon The Black Book in a Dushanbe bookstore, one of only a few titles available in English.

It proved to be even more perfect choice than I realized at the time. Billed as a mystery, I naively expected something along the lines of conventional detective fiction. Granted, the protagonist, Galip, is the loving husband of the missing person rather than a dispassionate investigator. But the farther I read the less I could make of Galip’s relentless criss-crossing of Istanbul in his search for his wife.

Though I’ve never been good at literary sleuthing, readers of traditional mysteries typically expect to track clues and guess at solutions. I attempted this at first, but as lists of items, names, and aliases lengthened and references to historical events and places mounted, I thought, “How on earth can Pamuk expect us to keep track of all of this?”

At length it came to me that the he didn’t. Rather, the author was striving for an effect akin to that of an impressionistic painting. Each of the myriad of details might signify little on their own. But the accumulation conjures up an aura, a sense of a place composed of layers of history that reach from the fourth-century underground Roman cisterns to the tips of the minarets that crown the city’s seven fabled hills.

At length Galip ventures into the realm of Hurufi Sufism, which, appropriately for a literary context, assigned mystical significance to letters. I began to suspect Pamuk was, among other things, exploring the idea of poetry and metaphor—the idea that one thing can stand for another; that stories themselves point to something greater. When Galip works himself into a frenzied state where everything—every face, every object—is rife with meaning, we begin to question his sanity. Has his search for his wife driven him mad?

I can’t pretend to begin to plumb the complexity of Pamuk’s work or to probe its many facets. But it sent me down this one avenue of contemplation: What spurs us on to discern significance and meaning in everyday events? Is it an act of self-delusion to create stories from bits and pieces of our lives and recount them to ourselves and others? Or are we in fact teasing out threads that weave together into a grand masterpiece, unfathomable to finite observation? While the book’s 400 pages tested my resolve, as noted, it imminently fulfilled my desire for a work that would evoke the ethos of the Turko-Persian world. Pamuk conveys a multidimensional canvas of images and effects replete with history, culture, clerics, sects, politicians, police, and everyday citizens. For those with an eye for detail and an appreciation for complexity, The Black Book would doubtless reward countless rereadings.

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