Monday 11 August 2008

Who is it that can tell me who I am?

Orhan Pamuk's The Black Book has been sitting on my shelf for a long time, not claiming any sort of reading precedence because of how it came into my possession: I found it on the side of a road somewhere here in Toronto in a box marked "FREE".

People in Toronto fairly often get rid of books (and various kinds of furniture and clothing) this way; I've picked up a number of promising volumes on the road over the years (e.g., the complete short novels of Colette) so always keep my eye out for the random book box.

I've gotten rid of books this way myself and they're always scooped up very quickly, although sometimes only to go two doors down to be sold in the neighbours' bi-weekly yard sale. (These yard sales aren't incredibly successful because seeing the proprietor standing around smoking with a crying baby on her hip which she constantly instructs to "shaddap!" doesn't, apparently, draw in a lot of buyers.)

This copy of The Black Book turns out to be the first printing of the first English translation of the novel, but it came sans dust jacket and including some unsightly stains that I hope and assume are coffee. This copy also includes a mysterious post-it note in the front which says only "check 80926" and below that "92279". I can't imagine what this might mean. Did the last owner suffer in some way for leaving this note in a book he or she later got rid of?

(I love finding odd things in books, which is a good argument in favour of buying used books and going to the library; especially the library. I've found love notes, money, lecture notes, and many other intriguing things in library books.)

It's fitting, in any case, that this novel should have a little mystery regarding its previous owner as it is itself a mystery, but not just in the traditional "a crime occurs which must be solved" kind of way, because that part of the story is never resolved. On the contrary, the protagonist's inability to solve the physical mystery is intimately linked to his inability to solve the mystery of what it means to be himself and what it means to know anyone else, especially if they too (which, in this book, it seems they must be) are grappling with trying to inhabit their own identities.

This sounds a bit pretentious to me, as indeed, all Pamuk's novels do. But I find that what I would absolutely loathe in a lesser writer I really love when Pamuk works his magic with it. Things that I would mock for being designed to be read aloud in Earnest Young Poet voice, I look forward to with this writer (although I never have been able to get past the first 30 pages of another novel of his, The New Life).

While I do love Pamuk, he's not the kind of writer I could read very often or if I were in a hammock by the water trying to relax. Vigilant attention to detail is a must with his stuff or I find myself wondering what Hegelian/Lewis Carroll-esque nightmare I've just wandered into without noticing, and am forced to reread what I've found myself somewhat lazily skimming.

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