We 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.