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Orhan Pamuk, The Black Book

– August 11, 2012

With many translations, I am nagged as I read with the idea that if I not just reading it in the original language, but a native or the originating country, I would be getting much more out of the work than I was. This was relentless with The Black Book, and was not just a nag. I am sure of it.

Part of the problem is that the book has a historical setting of which, if you are not very familiar with Turkish history, you will remain quite ignorant -- unless you by happenstance glanced at the back of the book, saw the "Translator's Afterward," and read it. Issue number one: why is this afterward not a forward? It has incredibly important information in it.

Second problem: why not make the simple effort to offer a glossary in the back for the Turkish terms that are not translated. Many of the times you can not pull the meaning of the term out of the context of the book. On that line, why not provide some offering of explanation of other elements of Turkish language/culture found in the book: for example, the suffixes added to names. Why not even a pronunciation guide to the names? Yes, being out of the Turkish, but the readers that Pamuk would have been writing too would want to know. (It is very irritating for someone like me to not be able to figure out, with some assurance, how to pronounce things.) Small things, but it is very irritating to an attentive reader when the book in their hands is refusing them information. And so little effort to fix?

But that's all minor. The book is a wonderful read. Perhaps thwarted a bit when the second chapter, "When the Bosporus Dries Up," is a point of creative excellence not again matched for a quite a while. Perhaps thwarted a bit in that the major themes of the book seem to be most strongly developed in the last third of the book. (Not that they are not present in the first two thirds; it is that they are mostly that: simply presented.) Perhaps thwarted a bit in that the last third does seem to read as the most potent, most aesthetic part of the book: the middle does, on occasion, get tedious.

But it is a book that when closed, I very much wanted to turn over and start again. Which says a lot. I know reading it a second time I will get much more out of it (especially after solving the "Afterward" debacle!) and enjoy much more fully the more artistic elements. Apparently this is Maureen Freely's revised translation, and the revision is not merely editorial. I would like to look over the first translation, which, by her description, is more "opaque." I actually wonder if that means that the English text more resembles the Turkish: the book being made less opaque to make it easier for readers, not to make it more in the nature of the original. I am very curious, that. Especially in that the absence of a glossary, or pronunciation guide, or even a historical guide speaks to the attempt to make the book not look intellectual, and increase the reading base.

That said, I'm off to something else (my fourth attempt to read The Lord of the Rings, actually, having never made it farther than a smidge into Two Towers. Bur Pamuk's My Name is Red stands on the shelf, and may very well will its way into my hands in the not too distant future.

I wrote a different review for Amazon, which is something more of a reader's guide.


The Black Book a little bit of a difficult book, for a couple of reasons. I want to mark them out so readers can see the obstacles and not let them get in the way of what is in the end well worth the effort.

(1) For me the book is somewhat imbalanced. The `column' chapters read like treats set in among the occasionally bland meal of the Galip story. This is especially problematic in that the second chapter -- the `column' chapter "When the Bosphorus Dries Up" -- is absolutely wonderful. I was randomly calling people out of the phone book to tell them about it. "If the rest of the book is this good," I was thinking, "this is going to be an amazing read." Unfortunately, it was an early stylistic peak that, arguably, is never reached again. (Though, some of the later chapters come close: e.g. 27, "A Very Long Chess Game.") If you're a literature lover, don't get put off when the next five or seven chapters after number two do not seem to approach that early high. (The last third of the book is best . . . have patience.)

(2) There is a major mistake in the printing of the book, in that the "Translator's Afterward" should be a "Translator's Forward." There is some rather important information about the time of the setting of the book that, if you are not very familiar with Turkish history, you will miss entirely. Read the Afterward first!

(3) [Added after first posting this review:] I've had the thought that it might be very helpful to readers if you jump ahead and read the column-chapters 31 ("In Which the Story Goes Through the Looking Glass"), 33 ("Mysterious Paintings") and, perhaps, 27 ("A Very Long Chess Game") before starting at the beginning. There is nothing plot-wise in them, and they will present ideas that run through-out the book. (Between the three, most of the major ideas.) Also, when you get back to them they'll be all the better second time around. (They are also excellent chapters.) You might also want to put in mind these phrases: "No one of us can ever be ourselves" (from page 413) and "Though Istanbul would continue to be its old miserable self" (page 459). No spoilers there, just ideas. The book rather talks most directly, and elegantly, about its themes in the last third. (I would have been quite happy to have received this advice, and #2 above, before I read The Black Book.)

(4) On that line, before you read the book, hop on Wikipedia and read up on Turkey's history, at least back to WWI (pre-Ataturk). This book really needs footnotes to key the reader into historical information that someone not familiar with Turkey will miss. (For example, Pamuk will use different names for the same person, like Ataturk, which no Turk would think twice about, but which will throw anyone else. There would be no need to explain, just enough so the non-Turkish reader is catching on to what is being referred to.) Make sure you get enough understanding of the history so the Afterward makes sense to you and you'll be good to go.

(5) Every time you see something you don't know, hop back on Wikipedia and look it up. You can almost be assured it will pay off in spades, as most of the historical elements of the book continually reappear and inform the whole of the read - sometimes subtly, in passing phrases, to which you will say "hey! I know what that's pointing to!" and be happy. (And it's not really that much you will be looking up, so don't fret.)

(6) Extra Credit: something else that should have been part of the book: pronunciation of the names. The average reader might not think twice; but it is very annoying for us literary types not to know how to pronounce the names. And Turkish phonetics is not exactly obvious. (Yes, sometimes the i's are dotted, sometimes they are not.)

Hopefully that doesn't make it seem like the book will take too much effort. It absolutely does not. It does take some effort if you really want to enjoy it, but "too much"? In no way. This is a book wherein the train comes back around the mountain carrying much more pleasure than what work you put in sending it off.

Oh - one more quick note. My paperback had a bad binding that split on the interior side. Be gentle so you don't accidently have a book falling apart in your hands.