20070328

Den svarta boken

Orhan Pamuk - Den svarta boken

4/5

Now this was one bewildering read. It took me a while to get through, not because I disliked it but simply because it's hard work; it's impossible to browse through this book, you really have to focus. On one level, it's a detective story of a man searching for his wife and her half-brother who have mysteriously disappeared but are sure to be hiding somewhere in Istanbul. Much like in Eco's mysteries, the story isn't centered so much around finding clues as HOW we find and interpret clues - in fact, much of this novel seems to be about reading reality like a book, or alternatively how reality doesn't exist until we turn it into stories. Schrodinger's cat, I guess: nothing is fact until it is observed as fact. Or fiction, as it may be.

Then there are themes. History, identity etc. If I have any major complaint with the book, it would be that the identity theme is way too obviously done, each single character (if in fact - or fiction - there is more than one character narrating the book) going off on lengthy diatribes about how one becomes oneself or someone else (which may be the same thing). It pays off at the end, but after a while you do get a little bit tired of reading the phrase "to become someone else".

Though that's a large part of the narrative as well. Characters change names and roles like in a Lynch movie, and the plot, if indeed there is a plot, is hidden under - or perhaps simply made up of - lots of anecdotes, side plots, the lives of historical figures etc, all of which do tend to contribute, but it doesn't exactly make it easier to follow. Then again, storytelling itself is a large part of novel; the nature of storytelling, the purpose of it, the dangers of it, the benefits. It's a work of literature about literature. And as such, perhaps a tad too meta at times, though I can't say I don't like it.

There's one passage towards the end which really pinpoints what I believe Pamuk is going for in his constant examination of literature/storytelling both as a way of describing reality and creating it. Two painters are hired to paint two opposing walls in a whorehouse. A drape is put up between them so they can't se what the other is doing. After six months, the drape is removed and it turns out one has created a beautifully realistic painting of bustling downtown Istanbul; the other has simply covered his wall with a mirror, creating a perfect copy of the opposing wall. But as people look in the mirror and see themselves in front of the painting of Istanbul, they see the dogs in it bark, the water start to actually flow, the street vendors actually move. The copy has, by observation and tricks of the light, become something more. Not sure I'm phrasing this right, but it works, damnit, it works.

Pamuk is a very descriptive writer, which is part of the reason the book doesn't really suffer even though it's 512 pages of very little actually happening. If you like Eco and Calvino, you'll probably like this. If you want murders, sordid love affairs, car chases and, you know, PLOT (though there are murders, love affairs, car chases etc in the book) you might tend to get lost somewhere in it. If you hate postmodernism, you'll end up throwing it at the wall. But I found it a mind-boggling, boundary-deleting novel and I really liked it, even if it gave me a headache or two.

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