Melancholy in Istanbul: in Praise of Orhan Pamuk’s “The Black Book”

Last year I decided to pay a visit to the tourist city of Turkey, Istanbul. Like most tourists I bought loads of exotic chocolates, sweets and clothes, but  one souvenir did worth all the Lira I paid for it. I stepped into a bookshop which owners spoke fluent English (a rarity in Turkey), and asked for a good Turkish book translated in English. First thing they showed me was many books by Orhan Pamuk (I had no idea Pamuk was a Nobel Laureate ) out of which I chose ” the Black Book“.

A Brilliant yet Unconventional Postmodern Mystery: Turkish Style

The story begins when Ruya (as author points out Ruya means dream in Turkish) wife of a well respected lawyer named Galip leaves him leaving behind a note that only adds to the questions Galip already has. Shocked by this sudden gesture, Galip tries to find her and beg her to come back only to realize that she is nowhere to be found.

Suspected that Ruya must have gone to her half brother a renowned newspaper columnist named Celal Salik, he tries to call Celal , only to found out that he has disappeared from the face of the earth as well.

A Wanderer in the Streets of Istanbul, and the Reference to the Story of Rumi and Shams Tabrizi

The rest of the book is a dreamy yet sometimes frightening account of Galip’s desperate search for Ruya and Celal in the streets of Istanbul. Sometimes he ends up at a brothel trying to rid himself of pain in the arms of a prostitute who imitates an old Turkish actress and dreams of marrying one of her clients. What made me shiver was the author’s account of Rumi and Shams Tabrizi’s story, and its implications for the story’s protagonist. Apparently Persian poet Rumi who was infatuated with his mentor Shams Tabrizi kills him when he finds out about his love affair with his daughter. However, just like Galip in search of Celal and Ruya in the streets of Istanbul, he too wanders about in the streets of Damascus looking for a man whose life has been cut short by himself.

All through the disappeance of Celal, Galip who is unconsciously jealous of Celal’s job, keeps writing columns in the exact same style and sends it to the newspaper under his name. He goes to Celal’s apartment goes through his stuff, sleeps in his bed, and dreams of being a newspaper columnist, whose job in his view is much more exciting than of a lawyer’s.

At the end of the story Celal Salik’s dead body will be found covered in Milliyet  newspaper (Celal is a columnist in that newspaper) and the stains of green ink as a result of the bullet hitting his heart and the his famous green pen in his pocket. Ruya’s body is discovered a day later in the shop of her and Galip’s childhood storekeeper Aladdin, surrounded by dolls.

Although Pamuk never directly blames Galip for the killing of Celal and Ruya and lets his readers decide the real culprit for their death, but one can tell that  Galip who was a longtime admirer of Celal , angry that his wife admired him more than he ever admired her own husband, kills both of them. Just like Rumi, he kills two people he admired the most, but this is so unbelievable to him that he searches all corners of Istanbul looking for them.

Fantastic, Melancholy Eastern Prose that gets you!

Pamuk’s prose is breathtakingly beautiful, his flashbacks into Galip and Ruya’s childhood makes the reader sympathize with story’s protagonist (I’m still wondering if he did really murder Ruya). He leaves clues for the reader, as he portrays Galip looking into to Aladdin shop (where Ruya is taking her last breaths) with tears running down his cheeks. Ruya’s death surrounded by dolls in Aladdin’s old shop depicts her innocence and her untimely death. Also her love for detective and mystery novels is an ominous sign that the author emphasizes on throughout the story.

I definitely recommend this book and consider it a very good read; not just because the place its story takes place is different for a western reader, but because that it is unlike anything you’ve ever read before. Also kudos to the English translator of this book Ms. Maureen Freely that had done a tremendously good job in interpreting the book, or as she herself points out in the preface , getting the meaning behind those Turkish sentences.

AS always I welcome your opinions on this book if you have read it before, and am glad if I was the reason for introducing it to you if you have not read it yet.

P.S: I’d also put up Pamuk’s Noble acceptance speech for you to take a look at.


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