Melancholy and beauty touch each other, like a thumb and forefinger, as they encircle the northern autumn. Fall arrives suddenly, in a tiny shiver you feel as the wind touches you one day: a particular quality of wind known to you in your bones after a lifetime of summers and falls and winters, the same way the body notices a particular tickle in the back of its throat and in that instant recognizes the inevitability of the cold that will follow. One moment, we are held in the suspension of summer, and then it is fall, a completely different kind of season, melancholy because of its inexorable movement and beautiful because it is fleeting. In youth, the season is something to shuffle carelessly through, like the drifted piles of bright leaves on the way home from school. Later it comes to remind us of brevity and loss but we love it anyway, in spite of the sadness, because it contains a beauty we've come to recognize, perhaps, even in ourselves.
Hüzün, the melancholy that permeates all of Orhan Pamuk's books. At 2:30 am the other day, I finished the only one of his major works I hadn't yet read, The Black Book. It is long, complex, and ambitious; a masterpiece, I think. It was also very mysterious; there's much I didn't fully understand and am still pondering, as I try to put the work into context with his other novels and his memoir, Istanbul.
The Black Book grapples with the question of identity and whether it is ever possible to be completely oneself. Pamuk frames that question in the life of a particular man, Galip, whose beloved wife, the cousin he grew up with and married, has left him and disappeared. But the most important character in the book is a columnist in a major paper in Istanbul - a man who has spent his life writing about the identity not only of each human being, but of Turkey itself, and in an even larger sense, the East as opposed to the West. Through the life and writing of this columnist, and Galip's search for him - because he suspects that is where he will also find his wife - we find ourselves in a hall of mirrors where one's image reflects and multiplies, or in one of those trick pictures images where the woman on a cereal box holds a picture of the same cereal box, with her own image on it, and so on and so on into an infinity that is a child's delight but leaves an adult questioning their sanity. Like all of Pamuk's work, it is about loss and change, attraction to the new and longing for the past, and the complex interplay between tradition and creativity in illuminating and affecting who we are. In its style, the book also reflects the work of great novelists in the western tradition -- and I think that was deliberate on Pamuk's part -- but unlike the final summation, the grand philosophical statement we've come to expect at the end of those types of novels, this one ends without a final resolution: another mirror that seeks to penetrate the reality of modern Turkish identity. A close friend of mine described the ending of the book as being like "a cup of cold coffee with tranquilizers stirred into it." I wondered what he had meant until I got there, and then saw that it was a particularly apt comment.
I'd love to talk about this book with other people who've read it, especially in the context of Pamuk's other work. If any of you have read it, I'd love to hear your impressions - but also to hear from people who may have tried to read the book and didn't get through it at all, as happened to me several years ago. How do you see it alongside Pamuk's other books? Which did you like, or not, and why, and what do you think he is trying to say?
Note: oddly enough, there's a decent piece about Pamuk's new collection of nonfiction in today's NY Times.