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The Black Book

black-bookWe might be one of those people in this century whose favorite slogan is “Be Yourself” and who never hesitate to go to any lengths to prove that we are not afraid to show our “true” self. But how true is that self? Or, to be precise, the question should be, “Is it truly ourselves? Or is it someone else we imitate?” The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk may talk about the intense tension between the right and left wings preceding the military coup that took place in the mid 1980’s Turkey, but for the most part it daringly expresses Pamuk’s criticism, as always, of his country’s sense of self. Over the course of the 400-or-so-pages mystery novel, Pamuk doesn’t seem to be able to stop himself from describing how Turkish people, in the modern era, start to leave their “true self” behind and imitate some “other people”. And that, I think, is still relevant to this day, and to anybody on this planet.

Our protagonist here is a lawyer named Galip who lives with his wife and cousin Rüya in an apartment in Nişantaşı, Istanbul. One day he finds her gone, bringing only a few of her belongings and leaving a short letter saying that she will be back soon. But she never comes back, not a day after that, not even two or three days later. Galip starts to have a worrying suspicion that she’s running off to her ex-husband, a left-wing activist she met in her younger days. But then he doubts himself if it all is true and turns to think that perhaps his wife is hiding somewhere with Celâl, her half-brother and Galip’s much older cousin, for apparently Celâl is also missing. Unable to sit still, Galip sets out to go and find them, searching the entire city, following traces and clues, trying to decipher signs and letters while at the same time pointing out how the people of his city, of his nation, have changed their ways and gestures. Between Galip’s slow and meticulous investigation, Celâl’s pieces of writing will appear and tell readers (both of his columns and of the book itself) the way of his thinking and thus adding to all the clues and signs already mounted up to the highest peak. So instead of shedding some light on the case, they only succeed in getting the reader into a trap and making them all the more confused about the nature of mystery.

It is throughout this draining search for meaning of signs that Pamuk keeps hammering into us the importance of asking ourselves, “To be, or not to be, oneself?” The question haunts us every time we turn a page down from the first chapter up to the last. Like the one entitled Bedii Usta’s Children, for instance, where Pamuk, through the writing of Celâl, talks about a mannequin maker who insists on making mannequins in original Turkish poses and refuses to imitate European mannequins. It is less about mannequin making than it is about struggling to be oneself and be happy with it. In a chapter called The Eye, Celâl creates an imaginary eye and pretends that this eye is following and watching him being someone else, because he longs to do so, to be so. In I Must be Myself, a barber comes to the newspaper office and asks him a bothering question, “Is there a way a man can be only himself?”

And this mysterious question doesn’t stop within the personal range, it widens into the range of nationality and nationalism. At some point, a certain character will say, “To live in an oppressed, defeated country is to be someone else.” By this line, Pamuk appears to intend to make a mockery of the state of his country: defeated at the World War I, scrabbled around for a “new country”, a “new self” under the rule of secularism and Westernization just so they can restore their pride and dignity as a nation but without, as it is clearly seen, caring if they have to pay it with their true identity. To make this shame even worse, in a chapter Pamuk writes that “…it was because they had failed to find a way to be themselves that whole peoples had dragged in slavery, whole races into degeneracy, and entire nations into nothingness, nothingness.” It’s as if he wants to give some kind of warning that once a people loses their identity, they will be buried under other civilizations of the world and cease to exist at all.

With The Black Book, Pamuk seems to want to make fun of popular Western detective novels which, to him, serve no purpose but to please only the authors and have an already definite ending without truly complicated clues. This may sound so cocky but I have to say that The Black Book is indeed a mystery novel not like any other. The structure is very different from those usually in the genre. By means of Pamuk’s signature narrative style—a long, winding one—the mystery the story proposes appears to multiply uncontrollably, overlap each other, and then overflow that the deeper we get into it, the more we’re lost in it. The pursuit of clues and the large number of signs scattered along the storyline do not even result in useful information nor lead to the looked-for answer, instead, they give us a glimpse of something that might, or might not, be the motivation of the crime. Even as the book is drawing to a close, the mystery isn’t still revealed and the answer is not fully satisfying, thus producing a much unsettling conclusion.

I cannot say that The Black Book is the best work of Orhan Pamuk, nor can I declare it to be the best one I’ve ever read. During my reading, I felt stuck at times, didn’t know where one point of the plot would take me to, or if it would take me to anywhere at all. But I have to say it’s very interesting, captivating at some point, and, with its rather cliffhanger, very curious to me. And, the best point of this book is I can relate to it, as Pamuk’s works have always made me feel.

Rating: 4/5

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Bliss

Indonesian edition’s cover

There are times when we look at our society, we feel that we are actually imprisoned in our own home, a place where we’re supposed to be safe. Bliss by Zülfü Livaneli, a remarkable work of Turkish literary fiction, reflects accurately the notion. Set across the land of Anatolia and Istanbul, it unfolds the bitter fact of social oppression in a secular country where, in truth, religious belief and modernity stand side by side, merely separated by a very thin, transparent line. Livaneli manages to set up an atmosphere so pulling that the reader can feel the restlessness of people living in a traditional, social jail.

Cleverly told in two separate parts overlapping in one whole narrative, Bliss talks about three people who have to deal with what their society wants them to do and to be. Meryem is found losing her virginity and deemed dirty by her family and surroundings. The leader of the village, her own uncle, decides that she has to be executed. She has two options, committing suicide, or having one of her male family members kill her. Unable to end her own life, she is sent to Istanbul to face her death penalty in the city. Cemal, her cousin who has just returned from war, is appointed to do the dirty job. Emotionally damaged after killing his own best friend, Cemal feels nothing but numbness and a sense of responsibility toward his father. So he takes Meryem to Istanbul, with mixed feelings of disgust and compassion for his future victim.

On the way, they meet Irfan, a prominent university professor who suffers severe depression and is running away from the so-called normal life. Their encounter changes everything in them, and especially the way they see things. Irfan, who always tries to hide his true self inside, looks at Meryem and decides that there must be something wrong with her. She is too timid and shy for a bright girl, and seems to keep something awful. Irfan attempts to make her open up to him, revealing what she fears and what she’s doing in Istanbul with her cousin. Until one night, something horrendously shocking happens and eventually tears her secret open. Later after that night, Meryem has to decide on her own the life path she is going to take in the future.

Bliss presents to us such intricate characters laced with depression, trauma, confusion, feeling of lost. The three of them are the result of the social molding who feel uncertain about themselves. Meryem, born and raised in a traditional, strict, religiously fanatical family of East Anatolia, gamely and determinedly refuses to commit suicide for a sin that people are not supposed to blame on her. She’s innocent, yes, but she’s mostly described as strong and brave. Meanwhile, Cemal is just her opposite. Nationalist and brutally faithful to his religion, he looks so arrogant, patriarchal, tough and so able to bear anything while inside his heart, where nobody can see, he’s always uncertain, anxious, and afraid of his father. And among them, Irfan is the most complicated one. A self-proclaimed atheist, he is cynical and unhappy in the cocoon of his pretentious life. He is escaping because he is afraid of death, but mostly, he is afraid of dying without leaving any legacies. He’s so wrecked inside, so damaged and emotionally hurt. But, aside from his inner conditions, he is a kind and generous man.

Bliss is, on the whole, a very riveting novel. Every sentence, every narration, every description of character, and every elaboration of social background are very much capturing. The narrative is not perfect, I must say, for it flows a little bit slow at the beginning, having to introduce the three characters one by one with their elaborated backgrounds and respective problems. What’s more, Livaneli seems a bit hasty in putting the conclusion at the ending, although it doesn’t disrupt the entire beauty of the story and the enjoyment of reading it. However, the overall plot is very nice to follow, captivating even. Slowly but surely, it streams forward and feels steady, despite being inserted with a shocking flashback in the middle. Along the book, Livaneli serves the reader with social upheaval, dilemma, and problems of Turkey of which cultures, traditions, and religious understandings dangerously vary. We can see that they hold nationalism very tightly, so tightly that they erase the significance of their inherited religion. They have a problem, a crisis of identity, but they keep quiet and ignore it. Their unfair treatment toward women keeps prevailing and there’s no one even feeling moved to change it. Through the story of Meryem, Cemal, and Irfan, Livaneli shows the reader the true social, cultural, religious color of his country. Livaneli is so blatant and flagrant in telling his story, so careful and clever in overlapping the pieces of his narrative, so down to earth and argumentative in putting forward the issue he deems important.

Bliss by Zülfü Livaneli is a very beautiful, very astounding, very brave and brazen novel. It’s not only wonderfully written in narrative and characterization aspects, but also in its content and message. Livaneli is definitely a brilliant writer, and I dare say so even though this is his only book I’ve ever read so far.

Rating: 4.5/5

The New Life

Indonesian edition’s cover

The New Life is among Orhan Pamuk’s early works marking the big step of his career in the literary world. Consistently taking a political way, Pamuk presents an absurd work of fiction about the turning point in which Turkey, as both a nation and a country, finds its way toward resurrection via westernization, wielding figurative narrative as his weapon. The story is wrapped up in a hazy, strangely quiet atmosphere, yet strongly provokes our thoughts and understandings of what secretly happens behind the revolution of a fallen country which is, as the title says, figuratively described as “the new life”.

The story focuses on a young man named Osman, an ordinary student majoring in architecture who happens to get a hold of a strange book. The said book has made him fervently curious ever since his first encounter with the inanimate thing. Having read the book, Osman feels like his life totally changes: his surroundings, the “he” inside him, his thoughts, his feelings, the way he sees the world, all of it. He feels as if he is not his same old self anymore. He feels as if it’s not his place anymore and he wants to enter the new life described in the mysterious book.

One day, far before his feelings eating him, he meets Janan, the girl who deliberately leaves the book for him to find. He falls in love with her, oblivious to the fact that Janan has already someone to love. Mehmet, the man she loves, has also read the book Osman is holding, and gets shot in the chest then vanishes without trace. Osman witnesses the incident, and that’s what spurs him more to decide to go searching for the new life. On his journey, he meets Janan again and then they have the long trip together, to discover the new life and the missing Mehmet. But they never know what lies beyond their understandings and the seemingly endless road. At the end of Osman’s long, exhausting quest, years later, he eventually finds out all the things he never knows about himself for all this time.

Osman is the representative of Turks who’s caught in the middle of the tug of war between Islam and westernization over the newly built republic, restless and uncertain, yet curious and excited about the new life promised by westernization, and he successfully hides all his seething feelings inside his calm self. He cannot deny the conservative way stretching before him, nor can he wave away the fear he feels emanated from that road, but he hides it, too. He may not know where the new life will take him, but he’s eager to follow it, to enter it, because he believes it will be the best way he’s ever taken. While on the other hand, Janan is the epitome of the western ideologue, believing completely with all her heart and soul that she must step onto that life.

The mysterious, strange book told in The New Life symbolizes the westernization some conservative Turkish people cannot tolerate. That new way of life is shocking and causing uproar, and it surely can and will change everybody’s life. But everyone who dares to face the west has to endure the consequence, being banished by the conservatives, for they think it’s eating them inside out, eroding the base of their nation, which is the teaching of Islam. Nevertheless, the threat and fear fail to discourage those who believe in westernization from running after it, from grasping it firmly with both hands because, to them, westernization equals modernization and a better life, a once again arising nation. They will not let the opportunity to become a great country slip through their fingers, even if they have to risk changing the face of the formerly religious Islamic country forever.

Ever being figurative, The New Life is naturally meant to be an absurd tale, a product of prose covered in a haze of complexity. The narrative is not something which is crystal clear, and the reader is forced to grapple with the meaning implied at the end of it. Be that as it may, the plot is not too twisted and long to enjoy, and the beautiful, romantic language Pamuk used to narrate every scene and describe each character is definitely captivating. The story may seem difficult to comprehend, and what Pamuk wants us to see in it may not be totally clear. But he still has it in him to interweave history and politics with a gloomy drama to create such a thorough novel. He implies all the quiet upheaval happening in Turkey in his figurative creation of a story, using fictional tokens to symbolize what we may find true in real life. Somehow, The New Life has successfully become a wonderful yet challenging work to devour.

At last, I would say that The New Life is a work of fiction which is highly recommended. All literature aficionados certainly have to read it. It’s unquestionably stunning, and left me thinking and marveling at the last page. This book, I believe, will be something that stays forever in your mind.

Rating: 3.5/5

The Museum of Innocence

A true love never comes about easy. Orhan Pamuk has made it clear in his several novels, but here, in The Museum of Innocence, he seems to assert it more that anything can be obstacles, even a hypocritical society in which the love story happens. First published in 2008, The Museum of Innocence bears testimony to Pamuk’s skillful adept in blending his personal, adamant perspective on the modern Turkish society with a tale of unconditional yet implausible love. But unlike his other similar works, The Museum of Innocence has a higher proportion of a love saga as it turns out to be the core of the whole book.

The beginning of the story sees the life of Kemal Bey, a rich man running his father’s large business, where luxury and Western life style are inseparable parts of his surroundings. One day, he happens to meet his distant relative, Füsun, with whom he has acquaintance back in his childhood. Despite already having been soon to be engaged to Sibel, Kemal falls crazily in love with Füsun, who is much younger than he is. Lust, I’d rather say, is what first binds them together, although it then blazes up into strong love for each other with every secret encounter and lovemaking they have. Kemal is so deeply in love with Füsun that he dares to break off his engagement to Sibel, agonizes over Füsun’s leaving him, and pulls himself free of the society, his own family, and the world.

Sometime later, they meet again but Füsun is already married to another man. Never thinking of giving up, Kemal goes back to court her discreetly, having supper together and offering her an opportunity to become an actress she has been dreaming of for so long. Eight years, and Kemal never stops waiting and never surrenders his obsession and patience. But when Füsun’s marriage ends in divorce and they can finally plan their future together, that’s the point where the long wait has to stop.

Kemal is a picture of a bored member of the modern, glamorous Istanbul society in which everything is fake. He may seem like any other rich men we know, successful, rewarded with a beautiful, high-class fiancée, but deep down he is screaming in distaste. He is stubborn in nature, that’s why he refuses to be dictated by the pale imitation of a Western society and dares to leave the social world he’s been living almost his entire life to be with Füsun. His persistence brings him to willing to do everything for love, even though Füsun’s selfishness makes all his efforts in vain. She can be described as a naive, innocent, hapless girl, but her terribly unbearable weakness feels like a pain in the neck to me. Living in a more traditional, and poor, family, it may seem proportionally rational to have her rather passive in their pursuit of happiness. But still I cannot erase the idea in my mind that she doesn’t love Kemal enough to try hard. Easy or not, their love story is not one to run smoothly with that kind of attitude of hers.

Pamuk has channeled his feelings and understanding of the Westernization of the modern Turkey into many kinds of stories, into many intriguing embodiments of ideas, but never before has he channeled those things in his mind entirely into a love story. Through the love journey Kemal and Füsun take, Pamuk depicts ever so clearly the fake, modern, glamorous life in Istanbul with its fake branded products and fake respectable behavior and fake “Western” society. No one in The Museum of Innocence is portrayed as an honest person, even Kemal. They are all sadly hypocritical and empty, have no depth whatsoever. Once again, to them, the modern Turkish society, Westernization is the only way to get away from the shadow of the fall of the old Ottoman Empire and sneak into the prosperous European world. All these views would have been fabulously better written had Pamuk known where to stop his lines. If I have to choose one particular adjective to describe the way Pamuk telling this story, it’s boring. I know, reading Pamuk’s works had always been a challenge for me for their long, seems-like-forever plot, but I could always deal with it. The Museum of Innocence has bored me to the end. It’s so unfortunate that Pamuk failed to concoct its narrative into a more compact yet realistic story-line. The best things about this book are thankfully its characterization and description of today’s modern Turkish society. They are so vivid and lucid, enlightening and unpretentious, smooth and mouth-gaping. I never doubt Pamuk’s capability of describing his troubled country. Or his surrounding society, for that matter.

In conclusion, I have to say that The Museum of Innocence is the worst work of Orhan Pamuk I’ve read so far. Compared to his other works of fiction, or even his memoir, this book is completely dull and unbelievably ugly. Had he not been my favorite author, I would have stopped reading it then and there.

Rating: 2.5/5

Istanbul: Memories of a City

Indonesian edition’s cover (source: http://pustakakendal.blogspot.com/)

Trust Orhan Pamuk to weave together culture, history, religion, social condition, political issues, and his own point of view on his troubled yet quiet country into a detailed, wonderful tale. Either historical or contemporary, Pamuk’s works of fiction never fail to capture people’s attention. Or raise endless arguments, for that matter. But now he comes up with a memoir, Istanbul: Memories of a City. True to his writing nature, Pamuk doesn’t make Istanbul a sole account of his life and experiences, but he recounts the historical events ever happened in the past to the place he lives in, which in turn shape what he is and the choices he makes. First published in 2003, Istanbul offers so much more than a merely written docu-soap, if I may say so, and has particularly amazed me in any possible way.

Pamuk begins his memoir with the story of his childhood, in which, as a kid, he is suspicious that in another part of the world, in another house out there, there is another him. He’s so convinced of having a “twin brother”, of being different from the one in that other house that he creates a belief in his mind that one day he will also have another life, live in another world. Subsequently, he imagines living in two separate worlds, one of which is a world of art. When he draws or paints something (most of them are of scenery of Istanbul, especially scenery of the Bosporus), he feels as though he exists in that another world, being far away from his real life. He continues to feel so; even as he’s in the presence of his friends, he can be different persons.

Alongside the story of his life, Pamuk tells the reader about the city of Istanbul itself and everything within: the ruins and the piles of rubble, the mess, the poverty, the ignorance, the sorrow, the gloom, even the pretense of being “rich and modern” performed by its people. Somehow, Pamuk has intertwined those articles with historical facts and events taken place at the same spot and also books and encyclopedias he deems proper as references and sources of inspirations. And amidst his complicated yet readable description of Istanbul and everything it has, he irreluctantly conveys the secret of his family and even his feeling about it. That unconventionally unashamed part of him is what makes this memoir more gripping and alive, sinking us into a whirlpool of fantastic blending of a particular place, its history, its society, and the persons living in it.

Pamuk presents all this in a somewhat sorrowful atmosphere. He thinks the fall of the Ottoman Empire has brought the fall of Istanbul, and the fall of Istanbul has brought the fall of its people, one of whose is Pamuk himself. He was growing up within and with the sorrow of the city, which is truly undeniable after the last war bringing down the old kingdom. Pamuk can’t help but reveal the irony where the people of Istanbul think that being westernized and secular is the only way to recover from their sufferings of the fall. They think that being “western people” is the best way to get back to the glory of their country as a “new republic”. Yet they can’t be true “western people” because they are not, in any sense of the word.

Though personal, Istanbul: Memories of a City is not a dramatically written account of someone’s life and experiences. Rather, it is a complete narrative of events, connecting people with place and time. Pamuk’s way of narrating it is unexpectedly not boring for a memoir, and he equips his with beautiful images of classical paintings and childhood photos. This memoir is presented, very normally I’d say, in a total narrative and description, giving almost no room for dialogues nor utterances. However, the honest and nostalgic tone of the book has successfully put me through a better understanding and insight into a country I consider as the cultural and social “twin” of my own.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, although I don’t enjoy memoirs nor biographies as a general rule. Not because Orhan Pamuk is one of my favorite authors, but I found this book comprehensively written and very much attractive, both visually and narratively. So in the end, I would like to recommend Istanbul: Memories of a City not only to Orhan Pamuk’s fans, but also to everyone who seeks for something more than a memoir.

Rating: 3.5/5