Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk.

Here is my favourite review of The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk which I finished reading this afternoon.

Why bother reading stories? In part to escape ourselves, maybe in hopes of discovering ourselves. "The Black Book" is an intricate meditation on the act of reading that explores both sides of our urge for stories in obsessive detail.

The surface plot involves Galip's search for his missing wife and her half-brother Jelal, a famous Turkish columnist. But the deeper meaning of the story concerns the fact that every story has deeper meanings. As Galip's hunt progresses, the chaos of modern Istanbul promises to organize itself into the key to unlocking a larger mystery whose solution would make every detail of life carry meaning, turning the world itself into literature. As far as I can make out, for Pamuk this literary apocalypse would be equivalent to the Messiah's return and to each of us being reborn at last as ourselves, instead of living as hopeless imitations of our heroes from novels and movies.

Just as Galip discovers that Jelal, his own hero, cribbed his columns from older tales, Pamuk's readers gradually realize that Galip's story is a serpentine riff on the Islamic classics, as his search for Jelal and Ruya comes to parallel the Sufi quest for union with God. The Seeker becomes the Sought, Galip becomes Jelal, the reader becomes the author. The burden of postmodernity, Pamuk seems to say, is to realize that we are author, Messiah and reader rolled up in one, with the world as our text to fashion meanings for.

My one criticism is that Pamuk's tale feels a little too familiar, built around themes like the flux of identity, the absence of fixed meanings, the illusion of originality and the self-referential nature of literature that have already been ridden pretty hard by writers from Borges to Eco. But I like the way Pamuk annexes these postmodern concerns to the question of Turkish identity. What does it mean to be "ourselves" in a country where Westernization is a form of imitation? (and where the Western original turns out to have pillaged ideas from the East) "The Black Book" reminded me why stories matter, how literature shapes us and how amazing it is to have such great art available so easily at places like amazon.

It contains a detailed history and description of Hurufism. Huruf is the Arabic word for a letter of the alphabet. Hurufism is about finding meaning, secret or hidden, in the letters of the alphabet. This book spans the search for personal meaning and national identity.

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