The quest for an identity

Witoubou Newmai


“Oh, how I hated this columnist who thought he knew everything, who knew even when and what he didn’t know, who had learned to turn even his defects and shortcomings into clever little jokes!”


The above quotation is an expression from one of the characters of Orhan Pamuk’s ‘The Black Book’.


Yes, there is no denying that newspaper comments are irritating and tedious to many readers; and also it is not that newspaper commentators are unaware of it.


Coincidentally, this editorial dwells on certain aspect from ‘The Black Book’ to give a small relevant reflection of the present society, especially on identity.


According to Maureen Freely, English translator of the book, this “novel takes place at one of the darkest moments of recent Turkish history, but it is lit from within by the more innocent Istanbul we knew as children.”


Celal, a journalist who is “suffering from a terrible memory disease”, to keep his illness secret from the world, has gone into hiding. Throughout the story, Celal’s cousin Galip searches for his wife Ruya who also disappeared the same time his cousin had gone into hiding. Galip suspects his wife has taken up with his cousin. The underline theme of the novel is identity at different levels—identity of the Turkish people and their place. As Galip searches for Celal and Ruya, he notices different identities of Istanbul and its people.


Very much reminiscent of our surroundings, Galip and Uncle Melih, in one point of their search for Celal and Ruya, came to a locality of “old, narrow, cobblestone side-street along pavements riddled with potholes”. Looking up at tall buildings, “Galip could not help but wonder why the rich would ever have wanted to live in such miserable surroundings, or why anyone who did live in such miserable surroundings could be said to be rich”.


Readers also notice how the characters in the story are trying not to be their real self.


People whom Galip encounters while searching for Ruya and Celal through Istanbul have identity problem—they “live with a secret dream of becoming someone else”, in the words of one book reviewer.


Celal’s constant struggle to come back to ‘his-self’ is noticed in Chapter Sixteen of the book— “I must be myself, I said over and over. I must forget these people buzzing inside my head, I must forget their voices, their smells, their demands, their love, their hate, and be myself, I must be myself, I told myself, as I gazed down at the legs resting so happily on the stool, and I told myself again as I looked up to watch the smoke I’d blown up to the ceiling; I must be myself, because if I failed to be myself, I become the person they wanted me to be; if I had to be that insufferable person, I’d rather be nothing at all”. Galip also masquerades himself as Celal and writes his columns. Galip’s wife Ruya, too, seems not happy with what she is. She prefers to escape from reality as she reads detective stories at night and sleeps during the day.


‘The Black Book’ also presents tussles between tradition-modern, East-West and past-present.