The New Life by Orhan PamukBlood on the Tracks
Every one of us is a potential criminal, a potential killer, a potential murderer.
The question is: what circumstances would justify the crime, what situation would warrant us murdering someone?
If someone attacked one of our children, would we attack the assailant? If we went to war, would we kill for our country?
If the past was at war with the future, would we kill for the sake of the past, or would we kill for the sake of the future?
Well, the past is always at war with the future, so what are we going to do?
Will we kill, or will we sit back and wait for the war to end?
How can a war between the past and the future ever end?
How can we not kill?
Is Nature at war with Modernity? Is Realism at war with Modernism? Are Realism and Modernism at war with Post-Modernism?
Would you kill for Post-Modernism?
Regardless, come inside.
Up Against the Wall
I struggled with this novel for almost a half of its length. Perhaps a less patient or persistent reader would have thrown the book against the wall.
However, if I had done so, I would have missed out on one of the greatest reading experiences I have ever had.
Everything I read about the novel in advance, not much apart from the blurb, suggested that it was a post-modernist work. However, this did not reconcile with the words in front of me.
Initially, it came across as a jumble of very realist descriptions and lists and highly abstract concepts, occasionally in alternating paragraphs.
The narrative seemed to hop up and down on one foot, before passing arbitrarily to the other, for a while, and then back again.
A Life of Crime
I read on, puzzled, then finally I started to realise that I might now have all of the pieces, at which point a picture started to assemble in front of me.
I had done a lot of the work, but the author had placed the pieces there for me, like clues.
Turkish author Orhan Pamuk worked like a criminal, leaving enough clues for me to find, so that I could eventually identify the culprit myself.
The New Life might be metaphysical, it might be meta-fiction, but it also has many of the qualities of crime fiction.
Around chapter 13, it all came together, after which it was a roller-coaster ride. The last 100 pages just blew me away.
Skimming through my notes in order to compose this review, I realised just how subtle and widespread were the clues.
If you can be bothered to read the book once, I’m sure it will repay a second reading.
For a long time I questioned whether this was a minor work by a Nobel Prize Winner, alternatively did he really deserve the Prize?
Having finished, I feel this novel is a major achievement, regardless of where it stands in his ouvre.
I Read a Book One Day
The first paragraph announces the novel’s intentions:
I read a book one day and my whole life was changed…It was such a powerful influence that the light surging from the pages illumined my face; its incandescence dazzled my intellect but also endowed it with a brilliant lucidity.
This was the kind of light within which I could recast myself; I could lose my way in this light; I already sensed in the light the shadows of an existence I had yet to know and embrace…
It was with dread that I became aware of the complete transformation of the world around me, and I was overtaken by a feeling of loneliness I had never before experienced – as if I had been stranded in a country where I knew neither the lay of the land nor the language and the customs.
Within 24 hours, the narrator, a 22 year old engineering student (whom I won’t name), has fallen in love and is seeking out the truth of the book, the “meaning of life” and therefore a new life:
Love was every bit as devastating as the light that surged from the book into my face, proving to me how substantially my life had already gone off the track.
At first, I suspected that the book must have been a political tract like “The Communist Manifesto” or a religious Holy Book or a counter-cultural tome like those that proliferated in the 60’s and occasionally more recently (Eat, Pray, Rebel).
However, Pamuk doesn’t reveal much about the contents of the book, even its name comes late in the novel, if it can be believed.
Instead, we learn about it by its effect on its readers. They become converts, though because of its nature, they are secretive. They disengage from mainstream life.
From the outside, they appear to be radicalized and subversive. Conservative political and religious groups feel threatened and start to attack back, one ultra-right group even killing a number of readers. They track down those who are off track.
In just a few pages, we are plunged into a metaphysical battleground, although absent detail of the rival belief systems, it’s hard to determine who is Good and who is Evil.
Perhaps this is the way it’s meant to be. Perhaps this is the way it always is.
How are we to know who to side with? Perhaps we shouldn’t side with any side? Perhaps both sides are equally culpable?
And so we read on...
On the Road, In a Bus
The narrator and his friend, Janan (Arabic for heart or soul or soul mate), embark on a spiritual journey or odyssey through the Turkish countryside.
Their quest takes them on the road, off the beaten track, away from urbanized Istanbul.
They spend months travelling by public bus, trying to find the other realm hinted at in the book.
Roads join different people and parts of the country.
The bus is a symbol and vehicle of modernity and modernism that drives us toward our destination, our destiny, the future.
We start our journey from home, but as soon as we depart, our home is in the past. We are cut off from our former lives, we are cast loose. The bus cannot take us back home into the past, it can only take us inexorably toward a collision with the future. Just as we seek out spiritual integrity, things start to disintegrate. We fall apart.
Nature Versus Television
So the quest makes us witness to the battle between conservative, unpretentious, rural Turkey’s Islamic tradition and the apparent way of the future, the rapid and pervasive influence of Westernised commercial culture.
Rural Turkey is symbolized by Nature in the form of almond, chestnut, walnut and mulberry trees.
In contrast, the West pervades Turkey through television, radio, movies, advertising; even railway travel is viewed as an unwelcome, external, alien influence that detracts from tradition.
If today in this town… the virtue of living an ascetic life is considered shameful...it’s because of the stuff brought in from America by that mailman, the buses, and the television sets in the coffeehouses.
The Other Side
The narrator meets Mehmet, a former lover of Janan, who has also read the book, but turned his back on its message about a brand new world:
World shmorld...it doesn’t exist. Think of it as tomfoolery perpetrated on children by an old sap. The old man thought he’d write a book to entertain adults the same way he did children...
...if you believe it, your life is lost...
Believe me, at the end there is nothing but death. They kill without mercy…There is nothing to pursue to the end…just a book. Someone sat down and wrote it. A dream. There is nothing else for you to do, aside from reading and rereading it.
Can it be true that, in our search for enlightenment, we might only find darkness and despair? Isn’t the path to wisdom and contentment illuminated?
Can we find our own way out of our predicament? If we get lost, how will we be found? Who will find us?
Does this dilemma only apply to adolescents and young adults? 22 year olds like the target audience of Japanese author, Haruki Murakami?
We are not here to represent youth...but to represent new life.
Can an entire nation like Turkey find itself in this predicament?
Especially at a time in Turkey’s history when it wishes to become a member of the European Union?
Ironically, while everyone is skeptical about advertising, posters proclaim:
Happiness is being a Turk.
Who are we to believe?
A Labyrinth of Reflections
By this point, the novel appears to have abandoned any pretense to unadulterated realism.
It has more in common with the Magic Realism of South America, not to mention the dream-like aspects of Franz Kafka’s The Castle and Mikhael Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.
Bit by bit, we are forced to contemplate, suspect, negotiate and reconcile truth, reality, spirituality, imagination, coincidence, memory, beauty, love, happiness, death and terror.
Love provides some solace:
Love is the urgency to hold fast to another and to be together in the same place. It’s the desire to keep the world out by embracing another. It is the yearning to find a safe harbour for the human soul.
The only piece of heaven I was sure of was the bed where I was lying next to Janan.
Still, as we reflect, we are surrounded and confused and trapped by a labyrinth of our own reflections.
We can’t even safely look at our own image in a mirror. We are afraid of what we might see or learn there. We can’t even trust love.
The novel highlights the clash of cultures between Islam and Western-style Capitalism.
While Pamuk writes about it in a strident manner, he does so through the mouths of his characters.
It’s hard to tell whether Pamuk personally is anti-West or at least regrets the impact the West has had on Turkey’s heritage and culture.
The West has swallowed us up, trampled on us in passing. They have invaded us down to our soup, our candy, our underpants; they have finished us off...
We have no desire to live in Istanbul, nor in Paris or New York. Let them have their discos and dollars, their skyscrapers, and supersonic transports. Let them have their radio and their colour TV.
Yet, Pamuk doesn’t just defend, he counter-attacks.
He highlights how much impact Islamic culture has had on the West.
For example, Pamuk reminds us that the chess term checkmate comes from the Arabic shah mat
(the king died).
The word caramel (which relates to a subplot of the novel) also derives from the Arabic words kara or cara, which means dark.
Should Western readers feel personally challenged or threatened by these claims and attacks?
I don’t think so. We are subject to the same forces of Capitalism in the West.
In every neighbourhood in every city or rural area in the Western world, Consumer Capitalism (the Dealers’ Conspiracy) has bought up or destroyed local products and brands, all in the name of efficiency and global recognition, but at the expense of local character.
It’s just that Capitalism treats the Third World worse than its own backyard.
Pamuk resonates, because he criticizes what many of us in the West have grown to accommodate.
He is brave, when we are complacent.
Perhaps this is why he was awarded the Nobel Prize?
I originally questioned how appropriate it was to describe The New Life as Post-Modern.
However, the further it progresses, the more it becomes self-referential.
The narrator addresses not just the Angel, but the Reader, us.
He even calls into question whether the narrator might be an unreliable narrator (in a scene that reminded me of the Magic Theatre scene in Herman Hesses Steppenwolf):
So, Reader, place your faith neither in a character like me, who is not all that sensitive, nor in my anguish and the violence of the story I have to tell; but believe that the world is a cruel place.
Most importantly, Pamuk questions whether the novel is a tradition of the West that cannot be replicated in Turkey or what the West calls the Middle East:
Besides, this newfangled plaything called the novel, which is the greatest invention of Western culture, is none of our culture’s business...
I have still not quite figured out how to inhabit this foreign toy.
By Machinist or By Hand?
Pamuk uses the character Doctor Fine to question Literature:
Considering that the pawns and tools of the Great Conspiracy assail us, either knowingly or unknowingly, through books and literature…we ought to take precautions against printed matter…The culprit is not only that particular book, the book that snared my son, but all the books that have been printed by printing presses; they are all enemies of the annals of our time, our former existence.
He was not against literature that was scripted by hand, which was an integral part of the hand holding the pen…the books Doctor Fine opposed were those that had lost their glow, clarity, and truth but pretended to be glowing, clear, and true. These were the books that promised us the serenity and enchantment of paradise within the limitations set by the world...
The irony is that, whatever the view of Literature, all of the views conveyed in Pamuk’s novel itself operate within Western literary traditions, well at least, within the tradition of Post-Modernism.
Finally, within the framework of Post-Modernism, there is the dual interest in the fracture of life, perception and time:
Life is so fractured…TV abounded in gunshots, passionate lovemaking, shouts and screams, planes falling out of the sky, exploding gas tankers, all sending the message. No matter what, things must be smashed and broken.
At the same time, the author and the reader are both concerned to reverse the fracture, by way of integration of the material in front of them:
I discerned encoded whisperings between texts from which I could detect their secrets; and putting these secrets in order, I constructed connections between them...
The Bus Timetable
Any transport system must define three things: our destination, the intervening stops and the timetable.
Any journey or quest must comply with the same rules, even a spiritual one:
My restless soul which did not know respite was struggling to get somewhere or other, like some bus driver who had forgotten his destination.
Without a destination, how else can we define our journey?
However, Pamuk also emphasises the difference in approach of West and Middle East:
Our timetables and timepieces are our vehicles to reach God, not the means of rushing to keep up with the world as they are in the West...
Timepieces are the only products of theirs that have been acceptable to our souls. That is why clocks are the only things other than guns that cannot be classified as foreign or domestic.
For us there are two venues that lead to God. Armaments are the vehicles of Jihad; timepieces are the vehicles for prayer...
Everyone knows that the greatest enemy of the timetable for prayers is the timetable for trains.
There is much that I cannot discuss, because of a concern about spoilers, not so much factual spoilers, but thematic spoilers, given the manner in which Pamuk skillfully lays out his metaphysical tale.
However, like Proust (and Nabokov) before him, Pamuk is concerned with the concepts of time and memory:
I was about to discover the single element common to all existence, love, life, and time...
There is only one life, this one.
There is only one new life, that is, any life that there might be after death.
There is only the present, the past does not exist, except in our memory.
There is no paradise on Earth other than what we create ourselves.
We must make do with this one life.
Love and life are attempts to transcend time. They seek eternity, of love, of pleasure, of happiness, of fulfillment.
However, the paradox is that, when time stops, the journey ceases and the destination confronts us:
We had embarked on this journey to escape time.
This was the reason we were in constant motion, looking for the moment when time stood still. Which was the unique moment of fulfillment. When we got close to it, we could sense the time of departure...
The beginning and the end of the journey was wherever we happened to be. He was right: the road and all the dark rooms were rife with killers carrying guns. Death seeped into life through the book, through books.
Time is not infinite. It is finite. Or our share of it is finite. We are mortal and our life is finite. Life must end, either by design or by accident:
What is time? An accident! What is life? Time! What is accident? A life, a new life!
So, ultimately, accidents, fractures in time and intention, are fundamental to the narrative drive of The New Life:
So that was life; there was accident, there was luck, there was love, there was loneliness; there was joy; there was sorrow; there was light, death, also happiness that was dimly there.
Ultimately, Pamuk, through an Earth-bound Angel of Desire, urges patience, counsels that we take our time:
Your hour of happiness will also strike...Do not become impatient, do not be cross with your life, cease and desist envying others! If you learn to love your life, you will know the course of action you are to take for your happiness.
Contrary to Western belief, life is not solely defined and governed by intention, deliberation and purposiveness, it must accommodate the accidental, both fate and fortune, both the unplanned and the unexpected.
In a way, Pamuk is reassuring the Middle East (as we call Turkey and its surrounds) that the best way to protect yourself against the Occidental is to embrace the Accidental.
Extremely Spoilerish Postscript
It is continuing to frustrate me that I was unable to discuss some major themes of the novel, for fear of offending the Spoiler-Sensitive.
While they are fresh in my mind, I will write down some brief notes.
Please do not read these notes if you have not read the book.
It is important to me that any reader experience the metaphysical journey that the book takes a reader on.
(view spoiler)[The narrators name is Osman. Although Mehmet is Janans former lover, Osman regards him as a contemporary rival for her love.
Janan possibly represents the heart and soul of humanity. Thus, the rivalry is a clash of cultures seeking to win over at least the people of Turkey, if not humanity as a whole.
Having initially fallen for the ideas in the book, Mehmet rejects the apparent modernity of its vision. Still, if only to earn an income, he hand copies the novel, which perpetuates its life, and complies with the apparently Islamic acceptance of a book that has been written by hand, rather than printed by a machine.
While Mehmets adherence to tradition seems to be less extreme than that of Dr Fine (his blood father), he still seems to represent Turkish tradition.
Dr Fine believes that his son has been killed in an earlier bus accident. He gives his new son, Osman, a gun with which to kill the followers of the book.
Osman decides to use it to kill Mehmet, thus killing both tradition and his double (who has been using the name Osman), his rival in love.
In effect, Osman must kill Nature and Realism in the name of Modernity and Post-Modernity, Modernism and Post-Modernism, a New Life and a Post-Life.
At the end, Osman learns, via his own death by bus accident 13 years later, that there is no New Life on Earth. It has all been in his mind, the imaginary world created by a reader in response to the book. There might however be an After Life.
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