- The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Güneli Gün
Faber, 400 pp, £14.99, July 1995, ISBN 0 571 16892 2
A winter evening in Istanbul in the late Seventies. Political murders, disappearances and torture are daily events, and a military coup seems to be in the offing. Galip, a young lawyer whose speciality is defending political prisoners, returns home to find that his wile Rüya has left him. His instinctive response is to pretend that nothing has happened – Rüya is simply too ill to leave the apartment or come to the telephone. He then begins to scour the city looking for her.
Galip’s wife is also his cousin, and he soon discovers that her half-brother, the much-admired Jelal, has also gone into hiding. In a city of readers addicted to crime novels, newspapers and interpretations of the Koran, Rüya is a detective-story fan and Jelal a famous journalist. The Black Book is crowded with the life of Istanbul streets, but it is also a looking-glass novel of stories within stories. Pamuk’s city is both an Aladdin’s Cave full of glittering signifiers, and an echo-chamber where, wandering in disguise like Haroun-al-Raschid, the searcher encounters phantoms of himself. Galip comes across other devotees of Jelal’s newspaper column – a provincial barber, a discarded mistress, a retired colonel dabbling in Sufism – who are also engaged in a relentless, perhaps sinister pursuit of their hero. Thanks to his family connections, Galip steals a march on his rivals by managing to locate his vanished cousin’s secret apartment. He moves into it, waiting for Jelal and Rüya to return, and carries on the daily column in Jela’s name.
Jelal may have good reasons for lying low. He is an essayist and storyteller rather than a political journalist – which is hardly surprising in a country where, then and now, authors can face imprisonment for exercising their right to political comment. Nevertheless, some readers regard Jelal as a clandestine Communist, while others hold him responsible for betraying a failed military coup several years earlier. To Galip, Jelal and Rüya’s disappearance is a personal enigma, a rebellion against the claustrophobias of their ingrown family – a riddle that Galip himself, and nobody else, is intended to solve. What makes The Black Book so compelling is its author’s ability to combine the anguished cryptography and involuted narrative of the Post-Modern detective novel with the old-fashioned world of the knowable community and the family saga. Pamuk’s first, as yet untranslated, novel, Cevdet Bey and His Sons(1982), traced the lives of a wealthy Istanbul family over three generations. The events of The Black Book could be seen as resulting from a basic cultural, moral and generational dysfunction in the bourgeois family.
If so, the key to these social uncertainties may be found in Jelal’s newspaper columns, which are very different from anything a popular journalist could get away with in Britain. A mixture of anecdotes, reminiscences and teasing literary and philosophical speculation, they appear in the novel as a series of alternating chapters, so that each stage of Galip’s search starts from, and leads towards, one of the texts attributed to his cousin. Jelal’s essays have always been scanned by his more fanatical admirers for acrostics, riddles and secret clues, and Galip, too, now approaches them as if they were written in code. From his obsessive study of the columns themselves and of the notes, clippings, photographs, discarded pieces and accumulated fan-mail that he finds in Jelal’s apartment, Galip learns to imitate his cousin’s style and methods of work; in a certain sense, he has become Jelal. But this does not necessarily mean that he has cracked the code, or become more than a cipher in someone else’s plot.
Galip comes to realise that most of Jelal’s evocations of modern Istanbul rely on tales adapted from earlier sources – from Dostoevsky to the 12th-century Conference of the Birds and, inevitably, the Arabian Nights – and that running through them is a thread of prophecies, secret doctrines and centuries-old correspondences. In making these discoveries, Galip resembles the protagonists of other well-known Post-Modern novels – comparisons with writers such as Borges, Calvino, Eco and Pynchon have become commonplace since The Black Book(first published in 1990) came out in the present translation in the United States a year ago. Such ready categorisations reflect the rise of the paranoid conspiracy novel from its former pulp-fiction status to its present position as a staple of the international avant garde, but it would be absurd to think of Pamuk as merely repeating what had been earlier and more accessibly done in the West. The Black Book is different from the European-American novel of hidden conspiracies, and closer to one of its hidden sources.
The prominence in recent fiction of secret organisations such as the Freemasons, Illuminati, Mafia and Templars would seem to reflect a post-democratic, post-humanist awareness of the state and civil society as battlegrounds crisscrossed by terrorist and counter-terrorist operations and by the wars of hidden persuaders, criminal gangs, underground cabals and the secret police. In what now seems the more innocent age of the late Forties, the paranoid plot could be used by British writers like Orwell and CS. Lewis for straightforwardly satirical purposes. Early readers of Nineteen Eighty-Four do not seem to have focused on the difficulty of distinguishing between the Brotherhood, the underground resistance movement that Winston Smith attempts to join, and the Inner Party or secret organisation sustaining Big Brother himself. In Lewis’s thriller That Hideous Strength, we are in no doubt that NICE, the Wellsian scientific research organisation dedicated to wiping out the world of traditional beliefs, is diabolically and unambiguously nasty. Later paranoid novels such as Pynchon’s are far more nihilistic, revelling in the confusion, duplicity and inherent schizophrenia of a world such as Orwell had depicted.
In the Post-Modern detective story the hero is an undercover agent charged with infiltrating the Brotherhood and discovering their hidden knowledge, in the hope of thwarting the global conspiracy. The fascination of the occult doctrines for their initiates lies largely in the sense of secret power that they convey. (All this is a manifest perversion of the traditional goal of occult researches, which was to study and revere the divine wisdom.) Early in his quest Galip encounters Rüya’s ex-husband, who believes he has uncovered and frustrated a thousand-year-old conspiracy – but his discoveries are irrelevant and he is dismissed as a harmless madman. Galip himself slowly recognises that Jelal is a devotee of his 12th-century namesake Jelaluddin Rumi, the poet and Sufi mystic who founded the Order of Whirling Dervishes. Rumi, like Jelal, was a conscious imitator who believed that he could do no more than repeat other people’s stories. The wealth of allusions to Sufism and related Arabic and Persian traditions will regrettably be lost on most Western readers – what they will find, instead, are tantalising glimpses of one of the richest of the archaic cultural sources of modern civilisation.
Although the founders of Sufism were poets and mystics, they have been held responsible for the principal strands of occultism and secret brotherhood in the West. Robert Graves, for example, asserted that Freemasonry began as a Sufi sect and that both the Templars and medieval practitioners of the ‘black arts’ such as Roger Bacon took their inspiration from Sufi doctrines encountered in Palestine and Moorish Spain. According to Graves, too, the word ‘black’ in this context signifies not evil but wisdom – something which Pamuk doubtless had in mind in choosing the title of The Black Book.
The Templar device of the Turk’s or Saracen’s head was a symbol of wisdom, and not merely a way of boasting about the scalps collected by the Crusaders. Pamuk’s novel is haunted both by the idea of people as mannequins or ciphers – one of its most attractive characters is the old mannequin-maker whose marvellously realistic but unwanted creations litter the catacombs and underground passages of the city – and by the doctrines of Hurufism, a variant of Sufism which taught that the secret of wisdom is to be found in the letters imprinted on people’s faces. Galip learns from Jelal’s column to read the letters on other people’s faces, or at least on his own face seen in the shaving mirror. (He must first surmount the difficulties caused by Kemal Atatürk’s substitution of Latin for Arabic script.) As he sets out on this process of discovery, Galip for the first time receives a small, mysterious sign of encouragement, ‘I was sent by Him. He has no desire at all for you to stray on the wrong path and get lost,’ Galip is told as he inspects the underground mannequins.
Sufism is a creed of love, not of power, and Rumi’s greatest poems were inspired by his beloved, Shams of Tabriz. The two lived together in Rumi’s cell for six months, until Shams left without warning for Damascus, where he was murdered soon afterwards. Rumi followed in search of him, and Jelal points out in one of his columns that the poet’s adventures in Damascus were equivalent to the stages undergone by a traveller on the Sufi path to enlightenment. Another of Jelal’s pet theories posits a series of occult correspondences between the street-plans of Istanbul, Damascus and Cairo: all three are in essence one and the same city. Galip concludes that his search for Jelal and Rüya is meant to be following a parallel path to Rumi’s, with Jelal as his invisible guide – which perhaps explains his feeling of being watched every time that he goes out on the street.
One of Rumi’s parables, not reproduced in Pamuk’s novel, teaches that the seeker must forego his own personality and submerge his identity in that of his master. His purpose is to become the master. This parable proves a template for reading not only The Black Book, which openly acknowledges its debt to Sufi doctrine, but such modern Western classics as The Waste Land and Heart of Darkness. In Conrad’s tale, Marlow is the true seeker who fights off rival claimants such as the Harlequin and the Intended on the grounds that he can better understand Kurtz, the master to whom he attributes ultimate wisdom. The tragedy is that Marlow comes too late and that Kurtz’s insight – if that is what it is – crumbles to dust in Marlow’s hands. The Black Book, in a very different key, also ends with a tragedy – a political murder outside Aladdin’s store, on the street where Galip is staying, which he may have caused and of which he may have been the intended victim. The murder is left unresolved, but Galip is the seeker who comes too late.
The seeker is an impostor, who pretends to a knowledge and an identity that are not his, but he is also a lover who seeks to merge himself in the beloved. In one of the The Black Book’s most appealing (though least likely) scenes, Galip impersonates Jelal in an interview for a BBC documentary. He holds the television crew entranced while he narrates three times, on camera – and in Turkish – the 8000 – word ‘Story of the Prince’. In the tale the reclusive prince banishes all visitors and burns his books, furniture and clothing in an attempt to rid himself of external influences and become truly himself; but he is terrified by the silence of his mind. At another moment, one of Pamuk’s characters echoes the familiar observation that the wish to take on a false identity is a product of political oppression in Third World societies: ‘In the land of the defeated and oppressed, to be is to be someone else. I am someone else; therefore, I am.’ Both statements offer us partial truths about Galip’s needs: his desire to overcome impotence, failure and personal loss, his fear of inner nullity. But there is another side to the novel, which nurtures feelings of hope or, at least, the possibility of freedom.
Since The Black Book is obliquely, not directly, political, it is left to the glib BBC interviewer, with her thumbnail sketch of the last Ottoman sultans, the clandestine Turkish Communist Party, Atatürk’s legacy and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, to sum up the determining social forces in Istanbul in the late Seventies. In the midst of Galip’s exposition of Hurufism, we are told of various kinds of people whose faces are no longer legible because the letters have been obliterated; among these are ‘Kurdish rebels where the letters on their faces had been burned away by napalm’. Earlier this year, Orhan Pamuk was taken to court for contributing to a book of essays on freedom of thought, and he was also subjected to public attacks for speaking out against the Kurdish war. The tale he tells in The Black Book is not so enchanting that it omits to remind us of the sadness of modern Istanbul, and the miseries of its poor. Writing, Galip confesses at the end (now finally speaking in the first person), is his ‘sole consolation’; and one of the first columns he wrote in Jelal’s name was a passionate love-letter to Rüya.