As a caleidoscopic, metaphysical detective novel, 'The Black Book' is something like Paul Auster's 'New York Trilogy' meets the 'Arabian Nights'. Its complexity of ideas and postmodern construction definitely make for a challenging read. Most of all, though, it is a story about stories and the nature of storytelling.
The main story is fairly straightforward: against the background of increasing repression in 1980's Istanbul, Galip finds his wife Rüya (meaning 'dream' in Turkish) has disappeared, along with popular newspaper columnist Celal. Galip suspects they may have run off together, and searches around Istanbul for them. However, the reader is warned early on, when Galip muses that "the only detective book he'd ever want to read would be the one in which not even the author knew the murderer's identity."
The novel alternates chapters following Galip's search with columns by Celal, whose writings Galip increasingly reads as containing clous and signs to solve the mystery. This is where the novel explodes into a myriad of stories, anecdotes and speculations involving anything from Istanbul gangsters to Dante and Sufi sects. It is also how Galip allows himself to get sucked into the mystery enough to start doubting his own life and identity, and, ultimately, ponder questions of how to be oneself.
Let's take some examples to illustrate this complex mystery...
In one of his columns, Celal tells the story of an Istanbul brothel owner who organizes a competition to have the interior walls of his club painted with scenes of the city (a controversial idea in an Islamic country where figurative painting is forbidden). Two artists compete, on two walls exactly facing each other, and work for six months with a curtain between them to hide their work-in-progress. When the paintings are finally revealed, it turns out that while one of the artists has indeed painted an immensely detailed view of Istanbul, the other has simply installed a large mirror, which reflects the painting on the opposite wall. The second artist, of course, wins the competition.
(Update: See also this post on Rumi's 'Chinese Art and Greek Art' for the origin of this story.)
The mirror, however, doesn't simply reflect the painting, but mysteriously alters its view. In a long description of the double view and its eerie effects, the narrator mentions a black book:
A black book that the first artist had slyly placed in the hands of a blind beggar became in the mirror a book of two parts, two meanings and two stories; but when you returned to the first wall, you saw that it still held together as a single book, and that its mystery was lost somewhere inside it.
Like this black book, everything in 'The Black Book' reflects a dual nature, from the Turkish dilemma between East and West, traditional and modern, religious and secular, to the uncertain relationship between dream and reality, fact and fiction, the self and the other, and Galip and Celal. (Istanbul, the only city in the world on two continents, also symbolizes this dualism.)
Another story fuelling Galip's obsession is a book on the medieval Sufi movement of Hurufism, which believed the mystery of God could be read through letters visible in human faces. Note that by turning this proposition around, Galip is actually searching for faces (Rüya, Celal) in letters. But for Galip, the mystery starts taking on a vertiginous, Borgian quality:
If every letter in every face had a hidden meaning, and if each signified a concept, it followed that every word composed of those letters must also carry a second, hidden meaning (...) The same could be said of sentences and paragraphs -- in short, all written texts carried second, hidden meanings. But if one bore in mind that these meanings could also be expressed in other sentences or other words -- other letters, finally -- one could, "through interpretation," glean a third meaning from the second, and a fourth from the third, ad infinitum -- so there were, in fact, an infinite number of possible interpretations of any given text.
One such text interpreted at length by Celal, and consequently by Galip, is the poetry by Rumi, the famous Sufi mystic. In a detective story in a detective story, Celal speculates on the murder of Rumi's great friend Shams of Tabriz. After Shams was secretly murdered by a jealous mob, Rumi set out for Damascus to look for his friend and wandered around the city for months.
"If I am He," exclaimed the poet one day as he wandered lost inside the mysteries of the city, "then why am I still searching?"
As Galip identifies more and more with Celal and the mystery he represents, this provides at least one answer to the question of what it means to be oneself. Another answer is given in yet another story:
Once upon a time, there lived in our city a prince who discovered that the most important question in life was whether to be, or not to be, oneself. It took him his whole life to discover who he was, and what he discovered was his whole life.