There is always this feeling with Pamuk books that you are a satellite skimming the surface of a planet trying to get in. No matter how hard you try, you still say at the same height, not able to find your way in, it gets frustrating very fast. Frustrating but not boring – there is always a flow of events, of stories, of passages that pull you in and engage you at multiple levels. It’s just that they don’t seem to add up to a coherent whole. You know there’s something that he’s playing at, and he keeps throwing hints about at you, but he ensures that it remains outside your grasp. And then there’s a phase when you stop caring and go with the flow towards the end. You just want to get to the end and move on. Everything will make sense if it has to. It’s not necessarily trust in the author, mostly inevitability and the challenge of finishing the book. Eventually, you reach the ending – another Pamuk novel done, 4 stars given, the extra star missing because he played with you a bit too much.
And then, the fun begins. Snatches that come in at different times, when you contemplate your own life, your own history and identity. Those old roads that you pass through and think of how things were and how they are now with all those cars lining those then-empty streets. Those plastic wrappers for chips, random snacks that the strong monsoon winds blow in from God-knows-where, which remind you of a cleaner past and the sheer excess of it all now. It is scary how much you can relate to him, considering that his main trope is identity, delineating that of the East against the relentless assault from the West, set almost always in Istanbul that city that has always sat right at the crossroads. There is also that of History, trying to snatch it away from those who want to write it, saying “It’s ours! We get to choose how we write!” And thus flow the stories, the myths, the legends – the ways we store our histories and pass it on verbally by telling them to strangers we meet and spend time with, mostly through circumstance – in buses, in bars, in trains.
In many ways, this book is also an elegy, for what once was, for the memories of childhood, for the sadness that memories get intertwined with dreams forming one indistinguishable entity. Of having to live in a city one grew up in, but unable to identify with anymore, watching it decay and move out of one’s grasp. And this is where most Pamuk books stay with you. The rest is the usual – a ‘loser’ hero, a mysterious girl that he pines for who’s never truly his. Think Ka and Ipek, think Galip and Rüya. Pamuk works because he attacks the same concept from different levels. That’s also why he endures long after you finish reading.
I only wished there was Maureen Freely doing the translation – that heady prose was sorely missed.