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Newsday, 23 July 2006

THE BLACK BOOK, by Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Maureen Freely. Vintage, 466 pp.

In a volume of interlinked essays called Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk describes his home city as a place saturated with hüzün -- a Turkish word that cannot, it seems, quite be translated, though "melancholy" is in the neighborhood. It has a mystical overtone. A passionate believer "suffers from grief, emptiness, and inadequacy," explains Pamuk, "because he cannot be close enough to Allah."

And there is additional sadness at not suffering this loss enough; the grief, perhaps, of finding yourself already secular, despite your best efforts to the contrary. At the same time, hüzün is not a private experience. It is communal. Hüzün colors the music and the literature of Turkey. It radiates from Istanbul itself, where new "concrete monstrosities" and traces of the Ottoman era mingle.

"The great mosques and other monuments of the city," Pamuk writes, "as well as the lesser detritus of empire in every side street and corner -- the little arches, fountains, and neighborhood mosques -- inflict heartache on all who live among them." It is "an atmosphere and a culture shared by millions."

Whether or not hüzün is the essence of Turkey (and I wouldn't know, having never been), it is certainly the key to understanding Pamuk's novel The Black Book, which has just appeared in English for a second time. The earlier rendition, published in 1994, suffered from an archness of diction and uncertainty of tone that never let you forget it was a translation.

It appears that Pamuk has now found his authorized and definitive translator in Maureen Freely, a novelist who is also a longtime friend. Freely also put Istanbul into English. Each book stands on its own. But the author has indicated that The Black Book was his effort to do for Istanbul what James Joyce did in Ulysses for Dublin, so that Pamuk's later meditations on hüzün and the city often feel like a detailed commentary on the novel.

It is certainly an enigmatic work. One day, an Istanbul lawyer named Galip finds that his wife, Rüya, has disappeared, leaving only a terse note that she'll be back. At the same time, her cousin Celâl has also vanished. He writes a much-discussed newspaper column about life in the city -- a sort of weekly prose poem (tinged, one notes, with hüzün) that is closer in spirit to Baudelaire than, say, Maureen Dowd.

Rumor has it that Celâl's articles contain secret messages to the women in his life. And Rüya has a persistent appetite for detective novels. Galip, in effect, turns into a gumshoe, wandering all over Istanbul in search of signs pointing to his wife's whereabouts. And in time he also assumes Celãl's identity -- writing his column, becoming not just a decoder of clues but an encrypter of secrets.

At one point, in a flashback, we hear another cynical old newspaper columnist give Celâl some advice on a piece he might want to write one day. "Adorn your memories in pretentious language, adding clues that point to the void.... The man should pretend he cannot figure out the identity of the man who's spirited off his wife. Paradox: Therefore the man who spirited off his wife is none other than himself. But how could this be? Do you see what I mean? You could write like this. Anyone could write like this."

All of this -- the element of mystery, the doubling of identity, the infinite regress of labyrinths within labyrinths -- is very much like something out of Jorge Luis Borges. And so is the way the texture of the story builds up through layers of erudite references to history and theology. It is brilliant and inventive, but after a while the metafictional hijinks become tiring. One reason Borges achieved the quality of classical perfection in his fiction was that he knew when to quit.

What makes The Black Book more than a set of variations on an intertextual theme -- with bits of Kafka, Joyce, Proust, Mann and Calvino joining the collage -- is precisely its setting in Istanbul. The detective story is simply an excuse for Galip to wander around Istanbul, and for Pamuk to explore the byways of hüzün.

In "Istanbul," he invokes the work of some Turkish newspaper columnists of the late 19th century who captured the mood by describing neighborhoods and the way people behaved in the streets. The Black Book is a tribute to them -- but at a certain metaphysical remove. Pamuk's obsession is with how writing (fiction, journalism, whatever) both makes and unmakes identity. A universal theme? No doubt, but also one with specific overtones in a country self-consciously located at the cusp between Europe and the Middle East -- where secular modernization and sacred tradition are juxtaposed, like the statue of Ataturk down the street from a mosque.
"Once upon a time," Galip thinks of the people who served as models for a warehouse full of mannequins, "they had all lived together, and their lives had meaning, but then, for some unknown reason, they had lost that meaning, just as they'd also lost their memories. ... To be a bad imitation of someone else, wasn't that better than being someone who'd lost his past, his memory, his dreams?"

Perhaps it is worth mentioning a clue that I came across only after reading The Black Book. The name of Galip's missing wife, Rüya, also means "dream."