The New Life

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 35)

Over the course of a dozen years, Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk has accomplished a rather formidable feat, publishing five novels that manage to deal with Turkish subjects while together recapitulating the full range of twentieth century Western literary history. Pamuk’s first novel, Cevdet Bey ve ogullari (1982; Cevdet Bey and sons), is a work of literary realism. Sessiz ev (1983; the silent house) and Beyaz Kale (1985; The White Castle, 1991) are, as their Kafkaesque titles suggest, more modernist, and Kara Kitap (1990; The Black Book, 1995) and now The New Life are decidedly postmodern works, at once narratively playful and politically engaged. Western reviewers compared the author of The Black Book, in which a young lawyer searches throughout Istanbul for his elusive wife, Rueya (dream), eventually taking on the identity of her halfbrother, a journalist who has disappeared, to Don DeLillo and Salman Rushdie, two masters of the kind of postmodern novel Linda Hutcheon calls “historiographic metafiction.” The quest structure and assumption of new identities figure even more prominently in The New Life, in which Pamuk broadens the playing field and has his characters take up and discard identities with bewildering yet strangely liberating abandon. Yet after the success of The Black Book, The New Life seems a bit disappointing, strangely slow despite all of its motion as well as its getting off to a good, indeed brilliantly Borgesian, start.

“I read a book one day and my whole life was changed.” Readers of the world, beware: What this opening gambit in Pamuk’s narrative chess game implies is about as far removed from the cheerful sentiment expressed in Emily Dickinson’s little ditty “There is no Frigate like a Book/ To take us Lands away” as one can go and still be dealing with the same basic trope. Dickinson’s poem effaces the colonialist premise upon which her metaphor rides to exotic lands. Pamuk’s novel, on the other hand, foregrounds the new colonialism of the global economy and new world order and its consequences for Turkey, where East and West meet, along with old and new. Osman, although not identified by name until quite late in the novel, is another point of intersection, both reader of The New Life and narrator of the novel of the same name by an author whose own praenomen suggests that Osman serves, in some oddly angled way, not only as reader’s surrogate but also as author Orhan Pamuk’s double.

Like Roman Saul on the road to becoming Christian Paul, Osman at his desk is struck by the intensity of the book’s light. Metaphorically blinded, he nevertheless believes that it can guide him “through a strange and savage land” and enable him to recast himself, to “find the new life, safe and unscathed by any mishap.”

Pamuk’s novel is filled with mishaps of one kind or another, from the many, often fatal bus collisions to the more or less fortunate fall Osman recounts at the beginning of chapter 2 with all the directness and simplicity of a folktale for children: “The next day I fell in love.” The student of engineering falls for the student of architecture, Janan (soul mate), whom Osman sees carrying the same book (the very same, it turns out) and whom he confuses with a character in the book, the Angel. Yet these meetings of boy and girl, boy and book, are not accidental. They are parts of Janan’s plan to restore her boyfriend Mehmet’s faith in the book on which Osman has just placed his hopes of a new life (as Janan had earlier). Mehmet is shot, then disappears with Janan in uncertain pursuit. With Osman’s life now doubly “off track” following Janan’s disappearance as well as the death of his father, a railway worker, the year before, Osman also departs, “searching for something to lighten [his] burden” and hoping that his and Janan’s paths—their bus routes—will eventually cross. They do, at the scene of one bus accident, before, at the scene of another, Osman and Janan assume the identities of a young couple less fortunate than they (though like them, also readers of The New Life). Thus Osman becomes Ali Kara, like Mehmet a disillusioned reader, and Janan becomes his faithful wife, the book’s still faithful reader, Efsun.

As Ali and Efsun, Osman and Janan meet Dr. Fine, who, given the novel’s Alice in Wonderland-like logic, is not a doctor. Rather, he is a man whose father forced him to abandon his dream of a medical career and become a lawyer. Upon his father’s death, Dr. Fine began a new life as a storekeeper, but the great pleasure he derived from this simple pursuit, satisfying his customers’ equally simple desires with locally produced goods, ended when his son Nahit read a book that changed his life. Since Nahit’s reading led him to renounce his family about the same time that Western goods began driving out Turkish ones, the distraught Dr. Fine turns paranoid, assuming the existence of a great conspiracy....

(The entire section is 2071 words.)