A novel on Turkey featuring a group of students infatuated with a book. One of them has even abandoned his studies to make copies by hand so others can share it. It is never made clear what the book contains, but while the young are enthusiastic their elders think the contents are degenerate, another example of foreign influence ruining the country.
The plot itself has still not sunk in for me but I'll give it a go. A young boy (Osman) reads a book that influences him strongly. At college, he meets a beautiful girl (Janan) who introduces him to her partner (Mehmet) who has read the same book. Osman then witnesses the assassination of Mehmet, which no one else seems to notice. This raises Osman's suspicions of a wider conspiracy so he goes to find Janan, and together they embark on an indefinite journey around Turkey to meet people who are involved with the book. While they are journeying, they watch Western movies on buses, and witnesses many brutal accidents. Somehow, they end up in a town where a man by the name of Doctor Fine lives. Doctor Fine believes that his son (Mehmet - the same Mehmet?) died as a result of him reading the book. So to stop this 'conspiracy', he appoints several spies (all with codenames of brands of watches) to find, monitor, and assassinate all those who read the book. At the same time, while reading all the reports written by the spies to Doctor Fine, Osman realises that Mehmet had not died. So to rid the world of Mehmet and ensure that Janan does not meet him again, Osman goes on his own quest to kill Mehmet, which he does mid-way through the novel. The novel ends many years later, when Osman goes back to his main mission to find out what the book means.
Underlying the absurd storyline are themes that are often considered Pamuk's trademarks such as the issue of East vs. West. The main characters in the book spend a lot of time on buses watching replays of Western movies. Is this perhaps, Pamuk telling us that we (as Middle Eastern people) spend most of our lives in vehicles controlled by others, while we passively watch the West develop and create for itself a core identity? Throughout the novel, the identify theme is reinforced in other ways. For example, there are several references to products and brands that change from being 'local' to 'mass-produced'. There are also times where the narrator travels from dark little towns, and returns to the lands of billboards, burgers, and Coca-Cola. On a metaphysical level, perhaps this all means that what we're reading is not really a story about a young delusional man who falls in love with a girl and then goes on a mission to kill her former lover. What Pamuk is trying to say is that Turkey is so lost in the middle of modernisation and Westernisation that it has really assassinated itself despite all the attempts of maintaining its ancient identity. One particular quote that has stayed with me from the book is to the effect of - if maintaining old things to keep our identity is called enlightenment, then flea markets should be full of it!
At times, it felt like Pamuk was talking to us directly, telling us how he likes to read books and how prefers to write. These passages become more apparent towards the end of the book, where there is a noticeable jump in time from when the narrator was a teenager to 'now' - where he is married and has a daughter. I personally found these passages engaging, but there was a sense of detachment that came with them as there was a subtle shift in voice from a confused and irritated narrator to a calm, and focused voice.
Despite the changing circumstances of being 'normal' again, the narrator goes on a final road-trip, which brings the books to its morbid conclusion.
Overall, this is a book that you could read if you wanted to have a deep and meaningful discussion with someone about the meaning behind the words, or if you have an interest in the issues of identity and absurdity. It's a short read, but by no means a light one.
The first part was rather slow and confusing but with something indefinable, a lyric quality, the sense of something unfolding, a promise of better things – that urged me to carry on and I’m glad I did because the second half, in which Osman, the protagonist, searches for the meaning of life, thinks he may have found it, kills the man who seems to have found it, loses it again, finds it again, loses it again, and finally… *
Is quite astonishing.
There is no big reveal, no explosive finish, it’s a slow burn but a beautiful one. I intend to read it again, in six months time or so, I think it’s a book that will improve a great deal on a repeat run.
The writing is poetic, romantic, colourful, delicious. The story - it’s not a page turner, but it’s very well worth the effort of reading.
*I’m not going to spoil the ending, read it and see for yourself.