The Book of the Hidden Mystery

May 30, 2010 § Leave a comment


The Black Book (Pamuk, Orhan)

Home of the Istanbullus

Somewhere at the bottom of Orhan Pamuk‘s The Black Book, hidden in plain sight among the descriptions, digressions, politics, philosophy, mystical legends and family gossip, all of which are stacked one on top of the other like the detritus of centuries on a river bed, lies the key to a very deep mystery.

No, I am not referring to the missing wife, nor to the missing newspaper columnist cousin – those are just McGuffins. Oh, it turns out they were murdered alright, but Pamuk doesn’t tell us who shot them – or at least, I don’t think he does. I cannot rule out the possibility that all the clues necessary to solve the mystery are available, for more attentive readers than me to piece together (“so the body he sees by the roadside, while on the bus…but the man on the phone had said… and therefore, the barber…” as one line of reasoning, out of a million, might go). The entire book drips with secret meaning, every line seems terribly important in a veiled way, each word indirectly hints at other, unspoken, words, and I cannot be certain which detail is superfluous, and which critical, and whether Pamuk has diabolically dangled the single fact that connects everything to everything else right under my nose, while I looked for answers elsewhere. So I stared at each detail carefully and with great suspicion, and tried to list them and connect them, but then, there were too many to count, and the book was long – too long! – and I lost my way somewhere, and abandoned all hope of solving it unassisted, like a bewildered Sudoku novice who’s inadvertently picked a difficulty level beyond his abilities.

But I would like to believe that the mystery has  been left unsolved by the author, and this is something I suspected very early into the book, when the protagonist, Galip, declares his fondness for only those detective novels where the identity of the culprit is unknown, even to the author of the book. Ah, says his wise wife, the one who goes missing later, and who is a detective novel buff, but in that case, how would the author decide which details to keep in, and which to leave out, because, as everyone knows, there must be nothing that doesn’t make sense at the end? I suppose he would have to leave everything in, and it is the reader who would have to pick and choose the ones that make sense.

And so, while we join Galip in his mad search for his wife and cousin through the winding lanes, mosques and nightclubs of 20th century Istanbul, we are also treated to some delightful diversions. We are presented with a list of everything that will be found at the bottom of the Bosphorus once it dries up completely; we are led to the basement of a mannequin maker, who bewails the loss of an entire nation’s traditional gestures; we absorb the epic rivalry between two master painters; we are taught about the secretive medieval cult of the Hurufis and their beliefs; we are drawn into a debate over the teachings of the Sufi mystics Shams Tabrizi, Celalettin Rumi and Fazlallah Astarabadi, and an investigation of the death of the first-named, possibly at the hands of the second; we learn to read our own face in the mirror; we are regaled with the fascinating tale of an executioner who carries the weeping, severed head of a victim in his bag; we are given an account of the last days of an Ottoman Crown Prince, of a certain suicidal gangster, and of a military dictator who roamed the streets of his city in disguise; and many, many other stories, besides.

What emerges out of all this is not the identity of the murderer, but the central mystery explored by Pamuk, and it is this: why is it so difficult for us to be ourselves, instead of merely acting out multiple roles that people expect us to play, consciously and unconsciously, at home, at work, with family, with strangers, everywhere; why is it near impossible for us to listen to our own thoughts and know our own mind, instead of discovering our opinion about matters from newspaper columns and books written by others whom we trust and admire; why can we not behave naturally, instead of copying mannerisms and gestures from films and foreign lands? Why is everyone trying so hard to be someone other than themselves, Pamuk asks. If you peel off the artificial fabric of all our emulations and imitations, would we be left with anything at all, and if so, what would that feel like?

Pamuk has played a similar game before, in My Name is Red. The plot, the characters, the story-line – these are no more than elaborate props for him, convenient receptacles into which he pours his actual arguments – on Turkey, on art and religion, existence and identity. Those who pick up this book in search of grisliness and gore, or of detectives, deductions and denouements, will feel deceived, and elaborately so; this too, probably, is exactly as per Pamuk’s design, and, without a doubt, part of his charm.

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