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  • Written by Orhan Pamuk
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The Black Book

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A New Translation and Afterword by Maureen Freely

Galip is a lawyer living in Istanbul. His wife, the detective novel–loving Ruya, has disappeared. Could she have left him for her ex-husband or Celâl, a popular newspaper columnist? But Celâl, too, seems to have vanished. As Galip investigates, he finds himself assuming the enviable Celâl's identity, wearing his clothes, answering his phone calls, even writing his columns. Galip pursues every conceivable clue, but the nature of the mystery keeps changing, and when he receives a death threat, he begins to fear the worst.

With its cascade of beguiling stories about Istanbul, The Black Book is a brilliantly unconventional mystery, and a provocative meditation on identity. For Turkish literary readers it is the cherished cult novel in which Orhan Pamuk found his original voice, but it has largely been neglected by English-language readers. Now, in Maureen Freely’s beautiful new translation, they, too, may encounter all its riches.


Chapter One

The First Time Galip Saw Ruya

Never use epigraphs—they kill the mystery in the work!

If that's how it has to die, go ahead and kill it; then kill the false prophets who sold you on the mystery in the first place!

Rüya was lying facedown on the bed, lost to the sweet warm darkness beneath the billowing folds of the blue-checked quilt. The first sounds of a winter morning seeped in from outside: the rumble of a passing car, the clatter of an old bus, the rattle of the copper kettles that the salep maker shared with the pastry cook, the whistle of the parking attendant at the dolmus stop. A cold leaden light filtered through the dark blue curtains. Languid with sleep, Galip gazed at his wife's head: Ruya's chin was nestling in the down pillow. The wondrous sights playing in her mind gave her an unearthly glow that pulled him toward her even as it suffused him with fear. Memory, Celâl had once written in a column, is a garden. Rüya's gardens, Rüya's gardens . . . Galip thought. Don't think, don't think, it will make you jealous! But as he gazed at his wife's forehead, he still let himself think.

He longed to stroll among the willows, acacias, and sun-drenched climbing roses of the walled garden where Ruya had taken refuge, shutting the doors behind her. But he was indecently afraid of the faces he might find there: Well, hello! So you're a regular here too, are you? It was not the already identified apparitions he most dreaded but the insinuating male shadows he could never have anticipated: Excuse me, brother, when exactly did you run into my wife, or were you introduced? Three years ago at your house, inside a foreign fashion magazine from Alâaddin's shop, at middle school, outside the movie theater where you once sat hand in hand. . . . No, perhaps Rüya's memories were not so cruelly crowded; perhaps she was at this very moment basking in the one sunny corner in the dark garden of her memories, setting out with Galip in a rowboat. . . . Six months after Rüya's family moved to Istanbul, Galip and Ruya had both come down with mumps. To speed their recovery, Galip's mother and Ruya's mother, the beautiful Aunt Suzan, would take the children out to the Bosphorus; some days it would be just one mother taking them by the hand and other days it would be both; whatever bus they took, it shuddered as it rolled over the cobblestones, and wherever it took them—Bebek or Tarabya—the high point of the excursion was a tour of the bay in a rowboat. In those days it was microbes people feared and respected, not medicines, and everyone agreed that the pure air of the Bosphorus could cure children of the mumps. The sea was always calm on those mornings, and the rowboat white; it was always the same friendly boatman waiting to greet them. The mothers and aunts would sit at the back of the rowboat, Rüya and Galip side by side at the front, shielded from their mothers' gaze by the rising and falling back of the boatman. As they trailed their feet in the water, they would gaze at their matching legs and the sea swirling around their delicate ankles; the seaweed and seven-colored oil spills, the tiny, almost translucent pebbles, and the scraps of newspaper they strained to read, hoping to spot one of Celâl's columns.

The first time Galip saw Rüya, six months before coming down with the mumps, he was sitting on a stool on the dining room table while a barber cut his hair. In those days, there was a tall barber with a Douglas Fairbanks mustache who'd come to the house five days a week to give Grandfather a shave. These were the days when the coffee lines outside Alâaddin's and the Arab's grew longer every day, when the only nylon stockings you could find were the ones on the black market, when the number of '56 Chevrolets in Istanbul grew steadily larger, and Galip pored over the columns that Celâl published every weekday on page two of Milliyet under the name Selim Kacmaz, but it was not when he first learned how to read, because it was Grandmother who'd taught him two years before starting school. They'd sit at the far end of the dining table. After Grandmother had hoarsely divulged the greatest mystery of all—how the letters joined up to make words—she would puff on the Bafra she'd seen no reason to remove from the side of her mouth, and as her grandson's eyes watered from the cigarette smoke, the enormous horse in his alphabet book would turn blue and come to life. A was for at, the Turkish word for horse; it was larger even than the bony horses that pulled the carts belonging to the lame water seller and the junk dealer they said was a thief. In those days, Galip would long for a magic potion to pour over the picture of this sprightly alphabet horse, to give it the strength to jump off the page; later on, when they held him back in the first year of primary school and he had to learn how to read and write all over again under the supervision of the very same alphabet horse, he would dismiss this wish as nonsense.

Earlier on, if Grandfather had kept his promise, if he'd brought home that magic potion he said they sold on the streets in vials the color of pomegranates, Galip would have wanted to pour the liquid over the World War One zeppelins, cannons, and muddy corpses littering the dusty pages of his old issues of L'Illustration, not to mention the postcards that Uncle Melih sent from Paris and Fez; he would also have poured it over the picture of the orangutan suckling her baby that Vasif had cut out of Dünya and the strange human faces he'd clipped out of Celâl's newspaper. But by now Grandfather never went outside, not even to go to the barber's; he spent the whole day indoors. Even so, he still dressed every morning, just as he'd done in the days when he went out to the store: wrinkled trousers, cuff links, an old English jacket with wide lapels that was as gray as the stubble that grew on his cheeks on Sundays, and what Father called a silk necktie. Mother refused to call it a necktie—she called it a cravate; coming as she did from a family that had once prided itself on being wealthier than Father's family, she liked to put on Western airs. Later on, she and Father would discuss Grandfather as if he were one of those old unpainted wooden houses that collapsed around them almost daily; as they talked on, forgetting about Grandfather, their voices would grow gradually louder until they turned to Galip: "Go upstairs, why don't you; go find a game to play. Now." "May I take the lift?" "Don't let him take the lift by himself!" "Don't take the lift by yourself!" "Should I go and play with Vasif, then?" "No, he gets too angry!"

Actually, he didn't get too angry. Vasif was deaf and dumb, but when I played Secret Passage, he knew I wasn't making fun of him; when I got on all fours and headed for the far end of the cave I knew to be lurking in the shadowy outer reaches of the apartment, taking cover under beds as I ventured forward—as stealthy as a cat, as furtive as a soldier creeping though the tunnel that will lead him into enemy trenches—he understood me perfectly, but apart from Ruya, who wasn't there yet, no one else in the house knew this. Sometimes Vasif and I would stand together at the window for ages and ages, watching the streetcar line. The world we could see from the bay window of our concrete apartment reached as far as a mosque in one direction and, in the other, as far as a girl's lycee; between them stood a police station, an enormous chestnut tree, a street corner, and Alaaddin's bustling shop. Sometimes, when we were watching the people going in and out of the shop and idly drawing each other's attention to passing cars, Vasif would suddenly let out a hoarse and terrifying cry, the cry of a boy who is battling with the devil in his dreams; if he caught me unawares, I'd be truly frightened. This would provoke a response from the two chimneys puffing behind us. Leaning forward in his low armchair, Grandfather would try in vain to distract Grandmother from the radio. "Vasif has scared Galip out of his wits again," he'd murmur, and then, more out of habit than curiosity, he'd turn to us and ask, "So let's see now, how many cars have you spotted so far?" But no matter what I told them about the Dodges, Packards, DeSotos, and new Chevrolets I had counted, they didn't hear a thing I said.

Although the radio was on from the first thing in the morning till the last thing at night, the thick-coated and not-at-all-Turkish-looking china dog curled up on top of it never woke from his peaceful slumber. As alaturka music gave way to alafranga—Western—music and the news faded into commercials for banks, colognes, and the national lottery, Grandmother and Grandfather kept up a steady patter. Mostly they complained about the cigarettes in their hands, but as wearily as if they'd been suffering from a toothache so long they'd accustomed themselves to the pain. They would blame each other for failing to kick the habit, and if one went into a serious coughing fit, the other would proclaim, first triumphantly and then fretfully, peevishly, that the accusations were true! But not long afterward, the needling would resume. "So I'm smoking a cigarette—stop nagging!" Then there'd be a mention of something one of them had read in the paper. "Apparently, cigarettes help calm your nerves." A silence might follow but, with the clock ticking away on the wall in the corridor, it never lasted long. Even as they took up their papers again and began leafing through them, even as they played bezique in the afternoons, they kept on talking, and when the family came together for the evening meal, they'd utter the same words they did when it came time for everyone to gather around the radio, or when they'd both finished reading Celâl's column. "If only they'd let him sign his real name," Grandfather would say, "maybe he'd come to his senses." Grandmother would sigh—"And a grown man too"—and then, her face screwed up with worry as if she were asking this question for the very first time, she'd say, "Is it because they won't let him sign his columns that he writes so badly, or is it because he writes so badly that they won't give him permission to write under his own name?" "If nothing else," Grandfather would say, grasping for the consolation that had soothed both of them from time to time, "it's because they haven't let him sign his columns that so few people know how much he's disgraced us." "No, no one knows," Grandmother would say then, but in such a way that Galip knew she didn't mean it. "Who would know that we were the ones he's been writing about in the newspaper?"

Later on, when Celal was receiving hundreds of letters from his readers every week and began to republish his old columns under his own illustrious name—some claimed this was because his imagination had dried up and some thought it was because women or politics took up all his time, while others were sure it was out of simple laziness—Grandfather would repeat a line he'd recited hundreds of times already, in a bored and slightly affected voice that made him sound like a second-rate actor, "For the love of God, can there be anyone in this city who does not know that the apartment he mentions in that column is the one in which we sit?" At that, Grandmother would fall silent.

Then Grandfather would begin to speak of the dreams that would visit him so often as time wore on. His eyes would light up, just as they did when he told one of those stories they repeated to each other all day long. He'd been dreaming in blue, he'd say: the rain in his dream was the deepest blue, midnight blue, and it was this never-ending blue rain that made his hair and his beard grow ever longer. After listening patiently, Grandmother would say, "The barber's coming very soon," but Grandfather frowned whenever the barber was mentioned. "He talks too much, he asks too many questions!" After they were done with the blue dream and the barber, there were one or two occasions when Galip heard Grandfather whisper under his breath, "We should have built another building, far away from here. This apartment has brought us bad luck."

Years later, after they'd sold off the City-of-Hearts Apartments one by one, and the building, like so many others in the area, was colonized by small clothing manufacturers, insurance offices, and gynecologists who did abortions on the sly, Galip would pause on his way to Alaaddin's shop to look up at the mean and grimy facade of the building that had once been his home and wonder what could have prompted Grandfather to make such a dark pronouncement. It had something to do with his Uncle Melih, who had gone off to Europe only to settle in Africa and who, after returning to Turkey, had lingered in Izmir for many years before returning to the apartment in Istanbul. Whenever the barber asked after him—So, when's that eldest son of yours returning from Africa?—Grandfather would bridle; seeing his reluctance to discuss the matter, Galip was aware even then that Grandfather's "bad luck" had begun when his oldest and strangest son had gone abroad, leaving his wife and their son Vasif behind, only to return years later with a new wife and a new daughter (Rüya, which was also the Turkish word for dream).

As Celâl told Galip many years later, Uncle Melih was still in Istanbul—and not yet thirty—when they'd started building the apartments. Every afternoon, he would leave the law offices (where he did little other than quarrel or sketch ships and desert islands on the backs of old legal dossiers) to join his father and his brothers at the construction site in Nisantas. The workmen would be slacking off as the end of the workday approached; much to their annoyance, Uncle Melih would take off his jacket, roll up his sleeves, and set to work. The family owned two concerns at the time: the White Pharmacy in Karakoy and a candy shop in Sirkeci that later became a patisserie and then a restaurant.
Orhan Pamuk

About Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk - The Black Book

Photo © Elena Seibert

Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. His novel My Name Is Red won the 2003 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His work has been translated into more than sixty languages. 

Orhan Pamuk is represented by Random House Speakers Bureau (www.rhspeakers.com)

Praise | Awards


“A glorious flight of dark, fantastic invention.” —The Washington Post

"A splendid novel, as delicious to our mind's palate as a Turkish delight and as subtle . . . in its design as a Persian rug." — San Francisco Chronicle

"An extraordinary, tantalizing novel." —The Nation

"An inventive and . . . exuberant modern national epic."—Sunday Times (London)


WINNER 2006 Nobel Prize
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“An extraordinary, tantalizing novel.” —The Nation


The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about The Black Book, one of Orhan Pamuk’s most brilliant and intriguing novels, now in a new translation by Maureen Freely.

About the Guide

In Istanbul, a lawyer called Galip comes home from work to find his beloved wife Rüya—who is also his first cousin—missing. She has taken no suitcases, and she has left a brief note that doesn’t say where she’s gone or why. Could she have left him for her ex-husband or Celâl, a popular newspaper columnist? Galip thinks Rüya must be with Celâl, because Celâl has disappeared too. Thus begins an extravagantly playful tale that is both a murder mystery and an absorbing journey through Istanbul’s fabled past and its troubled present. In its mind-bending exploration of identity and meaning, memory and love, The Black Book brings to mind the unforgettable urban odysseys of Joyce and Proust.

About the Author

Orhan Pamuk’s work has been translated into more than thirty languages. He lives in Istanbul.

Discussion Guides


The story opens as Galip muses about his wife’s dreams, then moves directly into a long sequence of memories of his childhood, which introduces the family and its history. The narrative does not move back to the present until page 12. Pamuk seems to suggest that both the past and the Celâl story are more important than Galip’s life in the present moment. How does the novel’s back-and-forth structure shape your reading experience and your sense of Galip’s character?


Celâl never appears as a speaking character in the novel, yet his columns are crucial to understanding the mystery as well as the attraction of his character for Rüya, Galip, and many others. Why is Celâl’s writing so appealing?


What is the significance of the underground mannequin museum described in chapter 6, “Bedii Usta’s Children” and visited by Galip in chapter 16? How is it related to the underworld depicted in Virgil’s Aeneid or Dante’s Inferno? Why was Bedii Usta’s dream that he’d one day see his mannequins in shop windows never fulfilled [p. 59–61]?


In his column called “The Eye” [chapter 10], Celâl writes, “We all have a second person buried inside us, a dear friend to whom we whisper to our heart’s content, and some of us even have a third” and “The eye was the man I wished to be” [p. 117]. Is it true that we live with the presence of an ideal self—the person we wish to be—to whom we constantly compare ourselves? Is it also true that we involuntarily create this being in our own imaginations? If Celâl is the person Galip wants to be, who is the person Celâl wants to be?


The whole family lived for a time in the City-of-Hearts Apartments, and when a new building went up next to theirs, an air shaft was created. This pit has powerful symbolic implications for Celâl and Galip; it is the place of lost objects, of memory, of the past [pp. 205–209]. How does Pamuk manage to make the pit resonate so profoundly with loss?


As Maureen Freely notes in her afterword, the story “takes place at one of the darkest moments of recent Turkish history” [p. 463] and “a brutal coup that will end ‘the anarchy’ is nine months away” [p. 466]. How is the nation’s political situation expressed in The Black Book? What part does Celâl play in the politics of the novel’s historical moment?


Like Proust’s Paris, Joyce’s Dublin, or Dickens’s London, Pamuk’s Istanbul is as much a state of mind as a geographical reality. How does Pamuk bring the city into the story, and what role does it play in Galip’s and Celâl’s mental worlds?


One of Pamuk’s notable stylistic habits is his fondness for lists. See, for instance, the contents of Alâaddin’s shop [p. 41], the things that have fallen into “the dark air shaft” between the buildings [p. 207], the contents of Celâl’s desk [p. 95], or the anonymous caller’s list of what Celâl has written about police stations: “so many associations:—midnight blue, darkness, beatings, identity cards, the woes of being a citizen, rusting waterpipes, black shoes, starless nights, scowling faces, metaphysical inertia, misfortune, being a Turk, leaking faucets, and of course, death” [p. 349]. What is the effect of these lists, with their often fantastic juxtapositions, on the reading experience?


Galip decides that “whatever meaning a person found in the world, he found by chance” [p. 26], yet his search through Celâl’s papers, photographs, and columns, and Celâl’s study of faces, ancient mystical texts, and so on, show he believes meaning is to be found through deliberate seeking. Which of these approaches seem to be correct? Does the novel’s opening epigraph from Ibn’ Arabi shed any light on this question?


Rüya’s name means dream or fantasy; it’s also the name of the cinema in Beyoglu [p. 353]. How is the whole phenomenon of movie-going and movie star worship used in the story?


Pamuk has a great deal of fun with other texts and authors, both real and imagined, throughout The Black Book. For instance, the thirteenth-century Sufi mystic and poet Celâlettin Rumi to whom the story refers many times has the same name as Celâl. One of the later poets who carried on the tradition of Rumi and the Divan school was Sheikh Galip, who is quoted in the epigraph to chapter 9 [p. 93] and elsewhere. What purpose do these historical figures serve in the story? What is the nature of Celâl’s interest in Islamic mysticism and his obsession with the relationship between Rumi and the Shams of Tabriz [chapter 22]?


Reflecting on his marriage, Galip says, “Throughout the three years they spent together, it was Rüya . . . who’d seemed haunted by the life, the joys and pleasures that had slipped beyond her grasp” [p. 54]. Elsewhere he mentions “the bottomless well of Rüya’s indifference” [p. 458]. What kind of a person does Rüya seem to be? Why might she have married Galip? What motivates her to join Celâl in his return to “the garden of memory”?


What is the “dreadful message” that Galip is finally able to read in his own face, and why does the realization of this “truth” cause him such sadness [pp. 323–24]?


“Galip had once told Rüya that the only detective book he’d ever want to read would be the one in which not even the author knew the murderer’s identity” [p. 50]. Is The Black Book such a book? If “every detail in a detective novel served a purpose”—that purpose being to provide the clues about the villain—does The Black Book also provide everything we need to know to figure out who the killer is?


The Black Book alludes not only to a number of eminent Western modernist works, but also to classics of Islamic literature such as the twelfth-century Persian masterpiece, Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, the late eighteenth-century Ottoman romance Beauty and Love by Sheikh Galip, and Celâlettin Rumi’s extravagant encyclopedic narrative Mathnawi. What do you think are Pamuk’s intentions in referring to the canon of Islamic literature?


What is the relationship between memory and identity, and why is the fact that Celâl is losing his memory so important to what happens in the story? Celâl’s colleague Nesati says, “It’s not just his memory Celâl Bey has lost it’s his past—and this was his last link with his country. It’s no accident he can no longer write” [p. 322]. Does Pamuk’s work suggest that he would agree with this statement of Nesati?


What challenges does the book present for the non-Turkish reader? How might The Black Book be transposed to an American city and an American cultural and historical context? Is there a novel you have read that does something similar with American culture, history, and identity?


The Black Book plays with the familiar idea that sacred books, like the Koran or the Bible, contain mysteries that must be interpreted. In provoking the need for interpretation, the novel suggests, they are not unlike detective fiction, or maps of cities: all provide clues that will bring the diligent reader closer to a desired goal—the presence of God, the solution to a mystery, the end of a journey. How convincing is Pamuk’s parallel between religious stories and fictional ones? For whom might this parallel be considered blasphemous?


Galip finds a poem that describes a “distant golden age” in which “action and meaning were one and the same. Heaven was on earth, and the things we kept in our houses were one with our dreams” [p. 301]. How does this “heaven,” in which every object, every word, means only itself, compare with the world in which Galip lives? What is ideal about having no distance between a sign and its significance, between stories and reality?


Who is F. M. Üçüncü? The journalist Nesati says he was “a real-life person,” an army officer who was a reader of the paper, who then disappeared, and turned up again, “as bald as an egg,” “babbling about signs and omens” [p. 329]. Note also that the weapon used in the murder was a gun “of the sort issued to retired military personnel” [p. 446]. Is he the murderer?


The Black Book is concerned with ideas of national identity and memory. Looking at the “ordinary” Turks in the mannequin museum, Galip realizes “Once upon a time, they had lived all together, and their lives had had meaning, but then, for some unknown reason, they had lost that meaning, just as they’d also lost their memories. . . . They felt the helpless pain known only by those who have lost their homes, their countries, their past, their history. . . . Their only hope was to stop trying to remember the secret . . . to hand themselves over to God, to wait in patient silence for the hour of eternity” [p. 194]. What are the forces that cause such a loss of memory and identity? How does a culture come to be unrecognizable to itself? Has American culture suffered a similar loss?


By reading stories, The Black Book tells us, we get to inhabit the mind and life of someone else; yet we also prevent ourselves from being ourselves. Is it better to embellish one’s life with stories, or to attempt, as the Ottoman Prince in Galip’s story did [chapter 35], to eradicate them in order to be oneself? Do reading and writing doom us to live in a series of illusions, or is it in the end, as Galip concludes, “the only consolation” [p. 461]?


Orhan Pamuk Reader’s Companion
Orhan Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, the first Turkish author to receive the award. He is the overall bestselling author in his homeland and his books have been published in more than fifty languages. This guide is designed to help you explore Pamuk’s world and writings, whether your group chooses to read all of his works or to focus on his acclaimed novels or engaging nonfiction titles.
Born in Istanbul in 1952, Pamuk grew up in a well-to-do, Western-oriented family. As a child he attended private schools and dreamed of becoming an artist. He began his studies at Istanbul Technical University in architecture, but at the age of twenty-two switched to journalism, taking the first step in his career as a writer. Pamuk’s first novel, Cevdet Bey and His Sons, the story of three generations of a Turkish family, was published in Turkey in 1982. The White Castle, the first of his novels to be translated into English, takes place in seventeenth-century Constantinople (as Istanbul was then called) and explores the meeting between East and West, a theme that recurs throughout Pamuk’s writing career. The White Castle also introduced a deeper, more personal interest, one that imbues in his works of fiction and nonfiction alike: the relationship between dreams and reality, memory and imagination.
In his early years as a writer, Pamuk spent five years in residence at Columbia University, where he now holds a position as a visiting professor. In the autobiographical profile he wrote for the Nobel Prize committee, Pamuk reflected on his time as a visiting scholar at Columbia and the influence that had on his evolution as a writer: “I was thirty-three years old . . . and asking myself hard questions about who I was, and about my history. . . . During my time in New York, my longing for Istanbul mixed with my fascination for the wonders of Ottoman, Persian, Arab, and Islamic culture” (copyright © The Nobel Foundation, 2006). For much of those five years, Pamuk devoted himself to writing The Black Book, a strikingly original novel that weaves multiple voices and beguiling stories about Istanbul, past and present, into a modern-day detective story.
In his next novel, The New Life, Pamuk once again transformed the conventions of mystery into an intellectual adventure, creating a world in which a mysterious book, a fleeting romance, and conspiracies real and imagined wreak havoc on a university student’s life and his sense of identity. Set in the sixteenth century, My Name Is Red revisits Turkey’s rich and complex Ottoman past in a fascinating tale about the impact of Western art and aesthetics on an Islamic society that stifled individual creativity and strictly prohibited the creation of representational paintings.
As Pamuk’s fame grew throughout the 1990s, journalists in Turkey and abroad looked to him for elucidation on the political situation in his homeland and its relations with the West. Troubled by the changes occurring in Turkey, Pamuk wrote Snow, his first overtly political novel. A thought-provoking, witty, and balanced portrait of the rise of political Islamism, Snow was widely read and discussed in Turkey and became an international bestseller. The Museum of Innocence, Pamuk’s newest work of fiction, examines the nature of romantic attachment and the mysterious allure of collecting as it traces a wealthy man’s lifetime obsession with the lower-class woman he had loved and abandoned as a young man.
Collected essays, articles, and autobiographical sketches
Now in his late fifties, Orhan Pamuk lives in Istanbul in the same apartment building he grew up in. His deep attachment to the city is beautifully captured in Istanbul: Memories and the City, a combination of childhood memoir and journey into Istanbul life through his own eyes and those of painters and writers (including European visitors like the German artist Antoine-Ignace Melling and the French writers Gérard de Nerval and Gustave Flaubert); enhanced with photographs, it illuminates the personal and artistic influences on his work. Other Colors showcases the range and depth of Pamuk’s interests. There are short, lyrical pieces about his personal life collected under the apt and intriguing title “Living and Worrying”; critical essays on literary figures such as Dostoevsky, Camus, Nabokov, Vargas Llosa, and Rushdie, along with assessments of several of his own novels; and commentaries on a wide variety of political and cultural matters. A captivating collection, Other Colors provides fresh insights into the mind and imagination of one of today’s most notable writers.
A political drama and the recognition of Pamuk’s contributions to literature
In an interview with a Swiss newspaper in February 2005, Pamuk denounced the Ottoman massacre of millions Armenians in 1915 and the slaughter of thirty thousand Kurds in Turkey during the 1990s. His comments caused a furor in Turkey: several newspapers launched campaigns against him and he was officially charged with the crime of “publicly denigrating Turkish identity.” Facing death threats, Pamuk moved abroad. He returned to face a trial and the possibility of three years of imprisonment; the charges were dropped on a technicality in January 2006. The incident reverberated internationally, highlighting the conflict between anti-European nationalism in Turkey and the government’s campaign to join the European Union. It exposed, as well, the simmering distrust of—and sometimes blatant hostility toward—Muslim populations in the United States and Europe.
In awarding Orhan Pamuk the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, the Swedish Academy said, “In the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city, [Pamuk] has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.” Pamuk’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “My Father’s Suitcase” (Other Colors, pages 403–17), offers a more personal explanation of why he became a writer and what he hopes to accomplish:

It was only by writing books that I came to a fuller understanding of the problems of authenticity (as in
My Name Is Red and The Black Book) and the problems of life on the periphery (as in Snow and Istanbul). For me, to be a writer is to acknowledge the secret wounds that we carry inside us. . . . My confidence comes from the belief that all human beings resemble one other, that others carry wounds like mine—that they will therefore understand. All true literature rises from this childish, hopeful certainty that all people resemble one another.

For discussion
1.     Have Pamuk’s books changed your perceptions of Turkey? What insights do they offer into the country’s history and place in the world? 
2.     Have his books given you a deeper understanding of the Muslim world? Have they altered your opinion about the current situation in the Middle East and other parts of the world where Islam is the dominant religion? Have you become more or less sympathetic?
3.     Pamuk’s novels range over a wide span of time, from the sixteenth century (My Name Is Red) to the present day (Snow). Compare your reactions to the historical novels and the contemporary works. Which do you prefer and why?
4.     In these books what impact do the tensions between Eastern and Western beliefs and customs have on individual lives, on the relations between classes and ethnic groups, or on political debates? What competing ideologies (or ways of thinking) affect the characters’ behavior and emotional responses? Consider the ethical, religious, and social dilemmas individuals face and how they resolve them.
5.     Snow is prefaced by epigraphs from Robert Browning, Stendahl, Dostoevsky, and Joseph Conrad. How does each of them apply not only to Snow, but also to the other Pamuk books you have read? Citing specific passages, how would you characterize the author’s feelings about Western attitudes toward the Muslim world?
6.     What role do perceptions—or misperceptions—about Islamic law and religious customs play in the assumptions Westerners make about Muslims? Are there current controversies in the United States or Europe that support your view?
7.     Do Pamuk’s depictions of the relationships between men and women conform to your impressions of romance, marriage, and family life in a Muslim society? How are women presented in the historical novels? In what ways do the women in the novels set in the present (or in the recent past) embody both traditional female roles and the new opportunities they have to express their opinions and act on their beliefs?
8.     Istanbul opens with an essay about Pamuk’s feelings as a child that “somewhere in the streets of Istanbul . . . there lived another Orhan so much like me that he could pass for my own twin, even my double” (page 3). Many reviewers, including John Updike, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, and Charles McGrath, have written about what McGrath calls “an enduring Pamuk preoccupation: the idea of doubleness or split identity” (New York Times, October 13, 2006). Can you find examples of doubleness in the books you have read, and if so, what do these add to the story? What insights do they reveal about Pamuk’s own sense of identity?
9.     What techniques does Pamuk use to bring his characters, real and fictional, to life? How do his descriptions of settings, manners, and other everyday details enhance the portraits he creates? What use does he make of humor, exaggeration, and other stylistic flourishes in his depictions of particular situations, conversations, musings, and arguments?
10.     Pamuk employs many of the literary devices associated with postmodern and experimental fiction. (McGrath, for example, notes his use of “narratives within narratives, texts that come alive, labyrinths of signs and symbols . . .”). In what ways do his books echo Italo Calvino’s allegorical fantasies? What do they share with the writings of Jorge Luis Borges and other magical realists? What aspects of his literary style can be traced to earlier masters of innovative fiction like Kafka and Nabokov?
11.     In an essay on the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa in Other Colors, Pamuk writes, “It is clear . . . that there is a sort of narrative novel that is particular to the countries of the Third World. Its originality has less to do with the writer’s location than with the fact that he knows he is writing far from the world’s literary centers and he feels this distance inside himself” (page 168). Discuss how this manifests itself in Pamuk’s own works, as well as the works of Vargas Llosa and other authors writing from the Third World. Are there creative advantages to living and writing “far from the world’s literary centers”?
12.     Pamuk writes in Istanbul of authors who left their homelands—Conrad, Nabokov, Naipaul: “Their imaginations were fed by exile, a nourishment drawn not through roots, but through rootlessness” (page 6). If you have read the works of these writers, or other authors in exile, do you agree that their books reflect—in style or in content—the effects of living in a new, foreign culture? To what extent is Pamuk’s writing rooted in the storytelling traditions of Eastern cultures? In what ways does it show the influence of his early exposure to Western literature, his participation in international literary circles, and his longtime association with American academia?
13.     Despite the many differences between the societies Pamuk describes and our own, why do his characters and their behavior resonant with contemporary English-speaking readers? Are there aspects of Turkish mores that make it difficult to sympathize or engage with the characters in the novels? Do these factors also influence your reactions to his autobiographical pieces, literary criticism, and cultural observations in both Other Colors and Istanbul?
14.     How does Pamuk’s personal history, as well as the plots of some novels, mirror the complicated history of Turkey? Consider such topics as: the decline and dissolution of the once powerful Ottoman Empire; the sweeping changes initiated by Atatürk in the 1920s; the conflicting desires to preserve Turkey’s distinctive heritage and to become more active in the global community; and the rise of fundamentalist Islam throughout Middle East today.
15.     In discussing the importance of novels, Pamuk says, “Modern societies, tribes, and nations do their deepest thinking about themselves by reading novels; through reading novels, they are able to argue about who they are” (Other Colors, page 233). Do you agree? What can novels provide that nonfiction books and other media do not?
Suggestions for further reading
Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy; Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions; Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities; Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss; Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground; Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum; Franz Kafka, The Castle; James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Milan Kundera, Immortality; Naguib Mahfouz, The Cairo Trilogy; Gabriel García Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera; Vladimir Nabokov, Ada; V. S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River; Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past
Pamuk’s works are available in Vintage paperback editions (listed here in order of their first translation into English): The White Castle; The New Life; My Name Is Red; The Black Book; Snow; Istanbul; Other Colors; The Museum of Innocence
(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)

Suggested Readings

Farid ud-Din Attar, The Conference of the Birds and The Arabian Nights; Jorge Luis Borges, Everything and Nothing and The Aleph and Other Stories; Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler; Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland; Joseph Conrad, “The Secret Sharer”; Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Grand Inquisitor; Seyh Galip, Beauty and Love; Jason Goodwin, Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire; Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley; Kazuo Ishiguro, The Unconsoled; James Joyce, Ulysses; Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time; Mickey Spillane, One Lonely Night; Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire; Kabir Helminski, editor, The Rumi Collection; Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children.

  • The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk
  • July 11, 2006
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $15.95
  • 9781400078653

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