on 4 December 2006
Readers of Snow and My Name is Red will not be disappointed by this long-awaited new translation of Pamuk's most celebrated novel. Pamuk's evocation of Istanbul in the repressive mid-1980s - a crumbling, fearful city of dreams - is masterful. The episodic plot - at once a retelling of Dante's search for Beatrice in the circles of hell and a Kafka-esque quest for what it means to be yourself - can seem slow and ponderous at times, although enlivened by the newspaper columns of the mysterious Celal, but it is the ideas that Pamuk is wrestling with that make this not only an amazing piece of literature, but an important and significant contribution. It isn't an easy read, but it will stay with you long after you have finished reading.
A word about the translation. It is brilliant, one of the best renderings of Turkish into English this reviewer has ever had the pleasure to read.
Darkly evocative, wackily postmodern, the writing of 2006 Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk is a treasure trove little known in Britain. The decaying and repressed Istanbul of 1980 is brought to life magnificently in The Black Book, which roughly follows a man called Galip as he searches both for clues and for his own identity following the disappearance of his wife. Of all the languages written in Latin characters, Turkish is surely the most unlike English. It was written in Arabic characters until 1928, and so constructing a sentence mainly involves writing one word and adding at least five suffixes. Given this, the quality of the new translation is incredible. Much of this fascinating book is a joy to read, and much of the prose is as good as any I've read in English in a long time.
on 28 April 2003
The back jacket description of this as a book the turns the detective novel on its head is true but a bit of a red herring. Yes, there is a detective story element to this - Galip on a search to find his vanished wife and (by default) her half-brother, a famous newspaper columnist who has gone underground or vanished too. This quest threads the novel together as a whole, but really it is a strange, skewed look at identity and obsession. Pamuk seems to be writing about how anyone can define themselves as 'them' - probing uncomfortably at self-definition and perception - and also nagging away at themes of Turkish identity, history and nationality. I say 'seems' because the book is very densely written, often impenetrable, and while I could not put it aside I'm not sure what it ultimately said. If this sounds off-putting, it isn't meant to be - the book is very arresting, darkly written and quite gripping. The doubt it raised in my mind was an interesting doubt!
The jacket description of this book as a detective novel is in modern speak an attempt to sex up the sale. The story briefly is that of Galip who arrives home one day to discover his wife (a childhood sweetheart) has left him and all thats left is a note written in green biro. After a few days being in denial with his family he discovers her brother who is a famous journalist is also missing. He then spends the rest of the book (how this spanned out in time is not clear) mainly hanging around his brother-in-laws appartment, wearing his clothes, trying to assume his lfie and musing on the missing couple. Quite frankly one could argue having a nervous breadown. A few pages before the end he quite literally stumbles into what happened to his beloved and her brother. The structure of the novel comprises one chapter which is the story of Galip loosing his raison d'etre interspersed with chapters which are articles from the newpaper column of the missing famous journalist brother. I have read other books by Orhan Pamuk and I consider him to be an inventive and interesting writer, however, this is just not a good read. The only way I managed to keep going until the end was because I was trapped on the beach and had nothing else to hand. Nothing much happens, the newspaper articles are interesting but its hard to see the connection with whats going on, Galip is clearly undergoing some serious identity problems what with loosing his wife and becoming obessed with the purpose of his own existance and that of the brother but thats all there is. There is no real story that can grip the reader and its frankly heavy going. Sure its clever stuff and the writing at times and descriptions of Istanbul life are very interesting but there is something missing perhaps a more interesting storyline or more development of the characters or more things happening to Galip other than itrospection to make this a really good book that one could say to a friend hey you must read this.
on 21 March 2002
A very bad cover picture for such a good fiction. Synopsis means nothing for this book.
I'm not a reader after self improvement or learning something new. I read only for joy. And each second I spent reading this book was double worth it. No need to mention that I read it a second time just after finishing.
Read this book if you liked Cortazar, Borges, Joyce. The book is like a mathematical thesis, all the content is integrated while the story includes different stories within, not any word is misplaced or used unnecessarily.
The story is based on the mysterious disappearence of a woman and her husband's search for her in the exotic surroundings of Istanbul. But the reader is struck with stories and events full of symbols and meanings which are the only keys to mysteries. Did you know that word "cypher" was used for the blade to cut the head from the body?.
on 13 October 2007
I have visited Turkey, but not Istanbul. It's one of those iconic places that keeps cropping up in travel plans, but then gets overlooked, possibly because its name fits so easily into my thoughts that I convince myself I have already been there. Having just read Orhan Pamuk's The Black Book, that illusion will be orders of magnitude stronger. Orhan Pamuk won the 2006 Nobel Prize for literature and this seems to have spurned new translations of his work, new versions which hopefully can widen his readership in the English-speaking world.
The Black Book is a gigantic work. And, in the way that I suspect most readers might understand the term, there is no plot. Suffice it to say that Galip wakes up one morning and his wife has disappeared. He assumes she has gone off to seek out her first husband, Celal, a well-known newspaper columnist. Galip sets off to find Celal and, he assumes, his wife, but strangely the journalist has also disappeared. As a means to help him track down the two missing people, Galip immerses himself in Celal's life, his writing and, gradually, his very identity. Effectively he becomes the person he is seeking. He re-reads his past work and discovers unknown things about his own, his wife's and her former husband's past. By then, however, we cannot be sure if we are dealing with reminiscences of Celal, Galip's interpretations of them, Galip's reworking of them, or, indeed, Galip's own words presented as if they were those of Celal.
But the plot in The Black Book is almost irrelevant. It's not a book that one reads to discover what happens. It's a book that's replete with flavour, experience and history, and the reader feasts on vast helpings of all three.
Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul - let's face it, there is no other city on earth that has been named three times and where, on each occasion, that name has passed into language as an expression of political, strategic, religious and economic pre-eminence. It's a city that bridges continents, ideologies and faiths. Nowhere else on earth has a greater claim to the very quintessence of humanity than Istanbul. And yet modern Istanbul is a Turkish city, and perhaps its most fascinating aspect is its potential to mirror contemporary debates on religion versus secularism, tradition versus modernity, imperial past versus global present.
The Black Book has thirty-six chapters, each having its own title and prefacing quotation. The form, at least in part, is its content, in that each chapter could be read as if it were an article written by Celal or by Galip impersonating Celal. There is no linear narrative. We experience what inspired the writer and there is no ordering of time or place. But we feel we are in that city. We feel we are living its history, whatever that might be. And we feel we are experiencing contemporary debates on its and its people's identity. The city is central to everything in the book, with its multiple histories and allegiances mixed into the melting pot of its contemporary form.
Throughout, Galip finds he gradually becomes his quarry, Celal. He trades identities and roles, but never permanently, never for sure. In this way the characters become the city, whose sense of place and multiplicity of identities pervade all, thus mirroring the apparent confusion of its - and humanity's - complexity. But the people eventually are always welcomed by some aspect of the city's - and humanity's - multi-faceted nature.
The Black Book is a work that demands to be re-read, but not because it is in any way a difficult or impenetrable read. I have never been to Istanbul, but like the book, I feel it will be an experience that, once tried, will demand to be re-visited.
on 26 June 2000
The synopsis you read might describe what the book is about; however; be aware that it is just what you see on the surface... Deeper inside, this book is one of the most sad love stories you could read, a love story that has just finished, and we understand through the story how deeply, how desperately Galip loves his wife, and how insecure and how vulnerable he feels about this love. Ladies, read the part titled "..mirror.." (do not remember the full title) and understand how a man can love a woman and live for her watching every move of her...
This is a kind of book you read for a thousand times, story by story...
on 17 January 2001
An incredibly complex book. It tells the story of Galip, who slowly transforms into Jelal, the brother of his missing wife. Borrowing motives from the masters of Islamic Mysticism, tells the stories already told, cleverly diguised between the lines. Hard to read, hard to understand and very very enoyable. Always keep an encyclopedia with you while reading this book. A brief knowledge about Jelaladdin Rumi, Sheih Galip and their work is very handy - if not a must.
This is a fascinating novel. To be sure, if you have read other books by Pamuk, you will recognize the themes: the void that Attaturk's reforms could not fill (after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire); the continuing crisis of the Turkish identity that plays out in politics; and the extraordinary richness, humor and melancholy of the current culture. These are wonderfully sketched out in Pamuk's memoires, Istanbul, but also in the switching identities and interminable conflicts in his other novels. What makes this book interesting for hard fans like me is that it is his first, hence the source, of these later masterpieces of genius. It is serious, complex literature, that the reader can plumb for years in the imagination.
First, there is the plot and setting. A beloved wife has disappeared, and her seemingly hapless husband embarks on a search for her, grief stricken to the point that his sanity is shaken. This offers a wonderful portrait of the unknown, banal corners of Istanbul, just prior to the coup d'etat in the early 80s. Chaos is mounting, amidst the usual joyous cacophony of people and everyday struggle. It is warm, funny, and moving.
Second, there is the culture and identity. Turks are uncertain if they belong to the East or the West, which they mimic in Pamuk's eyes to an absurd extent. To fill this void, they turn to writers, such as the lawyer's mysterious cousin, a famous columnist. In my reading, his loyal readers are searching for themselves through his eloquence and culture, as he retells old tales as well as finds new ones, which he expresses through his own brand of mimicry (or transmogrification). The Lawyer studies him as the key to the secret of his wife's disappearance, eventually taking on much of his identity.
Third, there are the interactions, both with history and similar people in the present. It all mixes in a kind of Nabokovian dream, where there are real and imagined threats and relationships. The mind of the lawyer, seemingly so mundane, is revealed here with great depth, layers that peel away repeatedly.
My interpretation of the book is that it is about the internal narrative of our lives - the stories we tell ourselves about who we are - that is the basis of personal identity and even cultures. In ascendant, self-obsessed countries like the US, this narrative goes largely unexamined in our presumption that everyone should want to live like us. This novel offers a strikingly different vision of this narrative, one that is wounded by history and in search of words and concepts to re-make itself. I think this is a great human dilemma, from which Americans can learn to better see themselves as well as empathize with other peoples, particularly in the current crisis of the Moslem world.
The translation is very vivid, though of course I cannot read it in the original. There is also a fascinating translator's note, in which she discusses the complexities of Turkish. It makes me wish I had learned Turkish.
Warmly recommended for serious students of literature. This book requires effort, but it is worth every bit of it. I would compare the achievements of this writer with the best work of VS Naipal, full of pathos and empathy for characters unusual for an American or western audience and yet sparkling with humor in the darkest moments.
Not worth the paper it is printed on really. Forget all the over the top reviews of this book as a "Mystical tour of the Orient" "Magic carpet ride blah blah blah" Forget the fact that Orhan Pamuk has a PR organisation behind him that would make most politicians blush, forget the fact that Orhan pamuk is famous only for the fact that he is the only Turkish writer that has his books published in English and Turkish at the same time thus, ensuring he will get maximum coverage, forget the fact that he is almost a walking advert for Milliyet newspaper (and I am sure that fact will have nothing to do with him having such shining reviews in Milliyet and affiliated newspapers) forget all that and just look at the book for what it is and what quality this book is.
No, this is not some "mystical tour" rather it is a collection of worthless ramblings disguised as the writings of an intellectual snob. Pamuk even says himself that he was raised in a household where he knew virtually nothing about Islam apart from seeing the odd servant praying now and again so to consider him any kind of authority on the east is simply laughable his upbringing was probably more western than most of us.
So he takes us to the dark underground of backstreet Istanbul, but Nakshibandi Sheikhs? Give me a break the book is set in Beyoglu, he grew up in Nisantasi the nearest he got to a Naqshbandi was sitting on a train next to one or watching late night Star TV shock reportage.
Back street gangsters, strange left wing groups this book drifts along to nowhere just hundreds of pages of pointless drivel and misquoted books. Just because he throws in a bit about Rumi and quotes ibn Arabi suddenly he is taking the reader on a "mystical tour"? Come on, are we really to be fooled so easily? Imagine if any English or American writer started throwing in quotes from Canterbury Tales, St Nino, The Gospels etc would we suddenly think him/her to be some great writer of modern English literature or would we question his use of such works, question his/her motives and probably laugh at such a poor attempt at trying to look smart.
There is no plot to this book and little point either. pamuk uses the same formula in every book he writes. East meets West, throw in a bit of ibn Arabi and Rumi (makes the western audience interested and the liberals look like they care) throw in a few left wing groups (keeps your PR machine of Milliyet and Cumhuriyet happy) and just ramble about nothing the reader is so puzzled they convince themselves that it must be good because they couldn't understand a thing.
Buy this book if you must but please, do not compare this joker to greats like Kafka.