The Black Book (Orhan Pamuk)

Posted: December 28, 2015 in fiction
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I dreamed I had finally become the person I wished to be all these years. I was sleeping with the weariness of sorrow in the middle of the journey of our life we call a dream, rüya, in a dark wood of high-rises in a muddy city where the faces are even gloomier than the gloomy streets, when I came upon you. For the duration of this dream, or some other story, it seemed as if you’d love me even if I didn’t manage becoming someone else; it seemed as if it was necessary that I accept myself just as I am with the same resignation I feel looking at my passport picture; it seemed like it was useless struggling to be in someone else’s shoes. It seemed as if the dark streets and terrifying buildings which stooped over us parted as we walked by, that our passage gave meaning to shops and sidewalks along our way.

It has taken me far too long to read this book. Part of this is because I met someone and I don’t seem able to manage a blog and a relationship at the same time (though at this point, if I had to choose, I’d choose the blog), and part of this is because the book reminds me of a very painful part of my life, so it was difficult for me to get through, even though it’s interesting and well-written.

Galip’s wife leaves him in the first chapter; she spends the novel as a memory or a dream, so it is appropriate that her name is Rüya, the Turkish word for dream. She spent a great deal of time reading detective novels, and Galip turns his life into one, searching for the missing woman, so urgently and ardently that she begins to seem like a metaphor rather than an actual presence in his life. He covers for her, concealing her flight from their family, so that no one knows what he’s lost.

My wife left me four years ago. Galip doesn’t learn the reasons for his wife’s leaving, but mine made it clear. She refuses to be the wife of a gay man. The mixed-orientation marriage involves too much insecurity for her and too much dissatisfaction for the husband. But even though people tend to assume I didn’t care too much, I felt all the same panic and despair that Galip and other straight men feel when their marriages collapse. I spent the nights wandering around Asheville, too agitated to stay at home, trying not to throw my pedestrian self into oncoming traffic. A few months ago, I stopped calling and talking to my kids because it involved talking to her, and I felt like I was finally moving on, but my son’s therapist intervened and now the ex and I are talking more than ever. I’m not happy with the situation, but I do love and miss my children, so maybe I can get closer to them.

As Galip’s search progresses, he loses track of himself. Rüya has been a part of every aspect of his life since he was ten years old, and without her, he doesn’t know who he is. I had this same trouble; I built my entire life and sense of identity around her, and without her, I didn’t know anything about myself. Galip and I both watched our selves fragment, and I’ve been working at building myself back from the pieces ever since. The book focuses on the first week of Rüya’s disappearance, so it’s too soon to really see Galip come back to himself.

Galip decides that Rüya must be holed up with Jelal somewhere. Jelal is her older brother, the enigmatic anti-example of Galip’s childhood and a famous newspaper columnist. He disappears around the same time she does, but since he does that periodically anyway, the family doesn’t notice. In some ways, Galip’s search for Jelal is what the book is really about, as if the complacency engendered by his relationship with Rüya is the obstacle that keeps him from really knowing himself and realizing his potential, happiness being the enemy of progress.

Galip eventually finds that Jelal has purchased the apartment they grew up in, but while he’s kept the furniture almost identical, he’s also filled it with his own interests and projects. The ones that impact Galip the most are the ones that inform Jelal’s writing, the teachings of Hurufism. The Hurufis are a part of the Sufis, who are Shi’a Muslims. The Hurufis are really involved with the study of letters, finding hidden meanings in words and their arrangements, as well as finding letters (and therefore meaning) in people’s faces. This emphasis on language makes me feel like we’re losing a lot in translation; Pamuk talks about the Turkish language and its Roman/Arabic/Persian influences, so reading it in English feels a little like looking in a store window when you know you can’t afford even to walk in the door.

The fourth main character (second one actually present) is the city itself, Istanbul. Galip’s search takes him all over the city, to the caves beneath which are full of realistic mannequins, through several different neighborhoods, from the dried-up Bosphorus to Beyoglu, which is apparently full of organized crime. Galip works at finding the letters on the face of the city, and he discusses the city’s identity crises as he experiences his own. A friend of mine once described Istanbul as indicative of Turkey itself: about a third of it mostly European, and the rest completely Middle Eastern. It makes more sense for Turkey to belong to the GCC than to the EU, according to him.

Eventually Galip loses track of himself so much that he starts writing Jelal’s column for him, and even the most dedicated/obsessed fans don’t notice the difference. Jelal was signalling rebel forces with his columns, using the Hurufi codes, and Galip works it out and tries to take his place, but it doesn’t really work.

When I came unhinged after the ex left me, I didn’t absorb another person’s identity. I started writing a blog, and I made that identity the part of me that couldn’t speak in my real life. Those two parts of me are mostly reintegrated by now, but they were always aspects of my own personality, not a favorite family member that I wanted to emulate.

I keep thinking that it must be possible to be in a relationship without losing my identity, but I don’t seem able to manage it. I may have been able to make it work with Mr Labor Day (he seemed pretty close to perfect to me, but then I only knew him for a few hours), but not now. The guy I’m seeing is . . . not really suitable. He has no talent for silence. He’ll run on for hours, and if I try to interrupt his monologue, I get run over. I sometimes feel that he’s less interested in a lover than in an audience. He’s an actor, so that may actually be how he sees people. The result is that I feel undervalued and ignored, and those assertive parts of me are going into hiding. He also doesn’t know how to help me. I get easily overstimulated in public, and it often looks like I have a serious social anxiety problem. Instead of helping me away from the crowd, he keeps mingling with the expectation that I’m going to look after myself. I think he doesn’t understand that I don’t really talk with strangers, so mingling in a crowd is neither fun nor productive for me. With the anxiety, I need help getting through without screaming “Get the fuck away from me!” at the entire room. Since overstimulation is part of the problem, holding my hand is not comforting. I need a quiet place where nothing is moving and no one is touching me. A third problem I have is with his ED. I understand that at a certain age, a man’s body doesn’t work the way it once did, and my silence on the subject has been a gift I can give him, but again, the end result is to lower my self-esteem. The fact that I need more sex than he is able to give makes me feel like a giant slut, as does the fact that being with him hasn’t slowed down my lusting after handsome strangers. I guess monogamy isn’t as strong a component of my character as I thought. And, of course, the more I think of myself as a whore, the more I’m going to act like one.

Throughout the book, Galip’s story alternates with Jelal’s columns, which Galip’s narrator then refers to. And eventually, those become Galip’s columns written under Jelal’s name. His fans interpret them differently than he intends, and the decoding of signs becomes a life-or-death situation. It’s a great book, one that will go more quickly if you don’t have my emotional issues. In some ways, his description of Jelal’s columns is true of the entire book: self-consciously artistic, longer than expected, and deeply meaningful.

Oh! and, I’ve been writing shorter pieces for a new blog. Check the link above.

UPDATE: Sorry the comment “Check the link above” was insufficiently specific. Right next to the link to the page Spoiler Policy, in the menu at the top of the site immediately above the banner, you see the words The Other Blog. That page contains a link to <– or click here.

  1. pinkagendist says:

    The idea that we don’t lose some of our identity when we enter a relationship is a fantasy. If you ask Mike, he’ll tell you that every aspect of our lives is dominated by my will. In a practical sense I can’t deny there’s some truth to what he says. The style of house, the furniture, the way we live… I know if left to his own devices he wouldn’t have taken this road.
    In exactly the same way, I’d say my whole identity was altered by him. I changed my routine, work schedules, career ambitions- but that’s how it goes.
    If you’re going for the actor type, I’d recommend the classical variety. They tend to be more educated and also more reserved.

    • theoccasionalman says:

      What you say sounds like truth, but I think what I’m worried is that I’ll disappear like I did with The Ex. Some change is good, we’re all changing all the time, but I don’t want to become someone’s spectator. I am the hero of my own life, and I don’t want to be with someone who’s looking for a sidekick.

      • pinkagendist says:

        Keep in mind that interaction is a negotiation. If you were a dog you’d have to assert yourself to guarantee a particular role/space in your pack. We like to separate the human from the animal, but in truth, there’s very little difference.
        You have children, so I’m sure you’ve observed how they’re always pushing. Pushing to identify their rights, their limits, how much space they have or don’t have to impose their will.
        I may be wrong, but I have the impression you don’t push. You take roles as a fait accompli. That method would mean a successful relationship would be dependant on finding the planet’s one and only perfect person to be your partner. As those odds aren’t favourable, you’ve got a better chance if you’re willing to negotiate with someone and teach them how to meet your needs, psychological, emotional and otherwise 🙂

      • theoccasionalman says:

        I don’t push enough, that is for sure. I don’t believe there’s one and only one, but I do want a better fit than I have at the moment. I think physical attraction is important in a relationship, and I’m just not attracted to him, which makes the other problems bigger than they would otherwise be.

        I’ve been in NC for a few days, and I’m not experiencing the anxiety that comes between me and the world of Dallas (or Champaign, back in the spring of this year). I’m feeling a clarity that I haven’t enjoyed in a long time. I really need to find a way to live here more permanently.

  2. scribblefeather says:

    My opinion… Being silent with a partner about problems in the relationship is actually not a gift, especially when that silence lowers your self esteem. That silence offers no kindness toward him or toward yourself. Figuring out how to discuss issues and grow beyond them together … is scary territory for everyone. Sounds like you already know the outcome that you really need.

  3. cathcarter says:

    Way too many thoughts about this to fit into a comment….but I’ll go with the one that says that when you connect for a while with people who aren’t ultimately long-term material, you’re practicing, not slutting–practicing relationships again, practicing them with men, finding out what you do most need, what you can tolerate and what you can’t. There’s a bit in Always Coming Home where the protagonist of the longest narrative, having gone to live with the patriarchal Condor, is about to be married off to a stranger. She says, “But I’m a virgin!” “I’m glad to hear it,” says the patriarchal grandmother. “But what does a virgin want with a husband?” And it’s a good question. Virginity comes in many forms, even quite late in life. We don’t know for sure what we most need, or what it really looks like, or how to ask or look for it, until we’ve experienced a whole host of things we don’t want, or things we thought we wanted but find out we don’t really like, or things we didn’t think to specify as criteria or non-criteria until we encountered them. Practice isn’t just okay; it’s generally necessary, whether or not you “settle down” (problematic connotations there) into a long-term relationship.

    I’m also thinking that it’s important to keep in mind the connotations of SLUT and WHORE. They’re both pejorative because they’re typically used for women; men almost can’t be sluts, in popular usage, because non-monogamy is so often considered their natural state, and they’re seldom classified as whores unless they actively exchange sex for money (unlike women, who can become “whores” at the drop of the pants, no money involved, no dictionary definition invoked.) But I’d say that if you’re not doing it for money, you can’t really be a whore. You may possibly be a slut, either temporarily or long term, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing; you don’t have to accept patriarchal definitions of non-monogamy (for women) as trashy, degraded, or degrading. You don’t have to be married again until or unless you really, really want to be–certainly not to yet another person who makes you feel bad. And you are prone to love as the sun is to shine, and the sun doesn’t go around shining for just one person. 🙂

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