Posted by: turtlebella | 31 December 2006

Being oneself?

Quite some time ago I said I would write about Orhan Pamuk, this (2006) year’s Nobel Prize winner for Literature. Now, before it gets to be 2007, I thought I’d get myself around to it. And also, because I just finished reading The Black Book (1990; 1995 in translation to English; 2006 new translation to English).

To me, The Black Book represents the incredible brilliance of Pamuk. It’s a novel about Turkey, Istanbul, the East versus the West, about story-telling, about history, religion, metaphysics, philosophy, mysteries, and the treacherously mundane, about trying to be* oneself, about being someone else. It’s about the grief, love. It is about words, letters, symbols, and mirrors. It is tortuous and labyrinthine, in the tradition of Borges (who is was? another one of my all.time.favorites.full.stop.). It’s about everything. And yet about nothing. As Charlotte Innes points out, Pamuk delights in the exercise of making you experience sudden breakthroughs where you find meaning in everything and then just as suddenly pulling back and finding meaning in nothing.

I never really knew what the hell was going on. But I usually don’t, when reading Pamuk. In the novels of his that I’ve read, in addition to The Black Book I’ve also read Snow (2002) and A New Life (1994) usually some kind of vague plot that I cling to with my toes but mostly I’m along for the ride – upside down, sometimes – of words and images. I’m aware that there’s probably something quite meaningful going on, if only I had the tools to unearth it. But mostly I don’t mind this, which I suppose might sound quite frustrating. And it would be, in the hands of anyone less brilliant than Pamuk.

In reading The Black Book, however, I experienced something altogther new. And that’s because the more-or-less main character, Galip, is engaged in reading a lot, trying to track his wife and cousin via his cousins columns, notes, stories, articles as well as a number of other written sources, sometimes diversionary, sometimes tantalizingly close to the Truth. And he begins to lose himself in the process of reading, to become someone else perhaps. He alternates between elation and despair. His elation come from feeling that if he just reads a little bit more, all the pieces will come together and he will have solved his own personal mystery and perhaps the greatest mystery of all. The despair from realizing that he is as far from understanding as ever. As I got deeper into the book, I suddenly felt like I was losing my own self, becoming Galip. I thought if I read just a little more of the novel I would figure out what it was all about, a few more pages and something – I wasn’t even sure what – would be revealed to me. And I could bask in the mirrored glory.

Any author who can transform his narrator into someone else and his reader into the narrator is pretty amazing in my book.

*According to the translator’s afterword, there is no verb meaning “to be” in Turkish. Given that one of the central ideas, themes, motifs in The Black Book is being oneself, trying to be more oneself as well as trying to be someone else, this to me means that the translation was in and of itself a feat of brilliance. Kudos to Maureen Freely for this, her second translation of The Black Book. And of course this means that a) I want to read the earlier, 1995 translation and b) I want to learn to read Turkish so I can read it in its native language. Because there was nothing like reading Borges in Spanish, way back when I could read Spanish that well.


  1. I actually thought you were going to mention Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go as another example of an “author [transforming]…his reader into the narrator.” A fine book, I think you’ll agree (we both read it this year); my favorite thing about it is how Ishiguro makes his reader feel the same thing his narrator is feeling. I don’t want to go into details since doing so would spoil the conceit for others, but suffice it to say it’s a neat trick.

  2. sounds like a great read. i was just writting about “being” (but, um, in the context of saddam hussein–in my post’s comment).

    and, yeah, one of the reasons i want to learn spanish is so that i can read neruda and gabriel garcia marquez. it is amazing to me that literature can still be so beautiful and engrossing when translated.

  3. sqvirrel- yeah, I had similar reaction in Ishiguro’s book. For a long time you really have no idea what’s going on. But there you do get some enlightenment (horrifying as it is!) Love that book too. Maybe Ishiguro should be next to get a Nobel!!!

    luisa- yeah. I did read marquez in spanish. and i regret that i have let my spanish lapse to such a degree as that i could not possibly do that now!! i have all these wild ideas of learning all kinds of languages, if only to read. arabic is at the top of my list, really. but i’ve gotten pretty much no where on that idea. maybe it should be a new year’s resolution…

  4. ‘Tis true for all languages I think– that is, that reading them in translation is a poor substitute for reading them in the original language (even if that substitute is still beautiful and moving). I’ve often said that reading Homer in Greek was full and sufficient justification for learning that (fairly difficult) language, and I’d say the same about reading Vergil or Tacitus in Latin… Too bad learning languages is hard for adults… too bad we all didn’t learn 6 or 8 when we were kids and it was easy…

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