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the black book

This post is not about Paul Verhoeven's film but about Orhan Pamuk's novel 'The Black Book' ('Kara Kitap').

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.

the chance of humming

A man standing on two logs in a river might do all right floating with the current while humming in the now. Though if one log is tied to a camel, who is also heading south along the bank –at the same pace- all could stil… Read the full post »

five comments

Despite its use as such in Dutch, 'detective' in English refers to a person and not to a book or story in which a crime/mystery/murder is unravelled. As also appears above, this can be called anything from a detective/crime story to a detective/crime/mystery novel to a murder mystery. At no time and under absolutely no circumstances whatsoever, even if mentioned previously in full, should the story/book/novel element following 'detective' be left out.
I just wanted to say 'hi', by the way...

Peter , 02-05-’07 12:29

Refering to the beggar:

A beggar smiled at me and offered me alms
In a dream last night, my heart sprang with delight.
His beauty and grace whic shone from his tattered
Presence took me by storm until I woke at dawn.
His poverty was riches, it covered my body in silk.
In that dream I heard the beckoning sighs of lovers,
I heard soft cries of agonized joy saying: "Take this,
Drink and be complete!" I saw before me a ring
Jewelled in poverty and then it nested on my ear.
From the root of my surging soul a hundred tremors
Rose as I was taken and pinned down by the surging sea.
Then heaven groaned with bliss and made a beggar of me.


jay , 08-05-’07 16:43

@ Peter: Hi! that was actually just a misquote. Now solved, so tnx.

@ jay: Divan..?

bv (URL), 08-05-’07 22:58

Hi BV,

It's actually a poem from a fictional collection of the Divan of Hafiz. (Diwan- e Shams- e Tabriz-i by Rumi).
Not every person is able to understand this kind of poetry. Embracing life, being open minded, willing to sacrifice and putting effort helps a great deal.
Appr. your comment.

jay , 09-05-’07 16:06

Ah, right, Rumi again ;)
My knowledge of Persian / Arabic poetry is sketchy at best, so couldn't immediately place Divan as http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diwan-e_Sha..
Tnx for the input!

bv (URL), 09-05-’07 16:35

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