An uncomfortable angel

THE NEW LIFE by Orhan Pamuk Faber pounds 14.99

Dissatisfaction with this strange, clever, unpleasant novel begins early. "I read a book one day and my whole life was changed," are the first words of the narrator, a young engineering student called Osman. Six pages later he is still listing the wonders of the unnamed book: the light from its pages transfigures him, he sees the path of his future and the gaze of that pitiless angel which looks neutrally on life and death. But of this prodigious and dazzling text at the heart of the novel, we are never allowed to read a word - a failure of nerve which makes the eye of the reader fall rather dourly on what has been offered. A muddy lack of candour and sense of hostility between writer and reader are characteristic of The New Life.

The problem is not with the plot - mad as that sometimes is - nor with the illustrious themes. Osman meets two other students equally obsessed with the book, falls in love with the woman, Janan, and from a classroom window sees her boyfriend, Mehmet, fall wounded by the bullet of an assassin. Janan disappears and Osman sets off after her on a phantasmagoric journey, riding for months aboard decrepit buses, his face lit up by flickering American videos. After three major bus crashes, he finds Janan, finds Mehmet, murders him, loses Janan, and then finally returns to an ordinary life to become one of the "multitudes of broken men" who have lost sight of their dream. Fifteen years later, however, he's off again; the meaning of the book, the dream, the angel all become clear(ish) and on the last page he meets his fate in a manner forecast on page six.

There's nothing particularly to object to here, and his journeys give the narrator the chance to meditate, often brilliantly, on love and death and old furniture, Chekhov and Coca-Cola. The country's moods are well evoked, especially that wonderfully indulgent gloom of autumn dusk in the back-streets of Turkish cities and in small lost towns on the Anatolian plain. And one can admire the elegance and ingenuity with which Pamuk addresses his theme: the moment of awakening at the end of childhood and catching the first glimpse of the well-known couple, Eros and Thanatos.

But still there is a vacuum at the heart of the book. The more important the characters are, the less they are able to breathe. We can believe in the minor players, Osman's Mum, Aunt Ratibe, the old man by the bus station, but while it is possible to credit Osman's journey or Mehmet's programme (to copy out the wonderful book endlessly by hand) - we cannot believe in their existence.

Pamuk has been compared, rather wildly, to Kerouac, Borges and Proust, but the real influence on this novel is Rilke, and the real hero is the frequently invoked angel, which has swooped into this Turkish fiction straight out of the Duino Elegies. All angels are terrifying, says Rilke, which perhaps is the reason they should be left out of novels; their unimaginable presence gives ordinary human characters a thin time of it. And the slighter they become, the more Pamuk whips up an air of mystery, with mutterings and flourishing of his cloak, and finally he rails at the readers as though everything that's gone wrong is our fault.

One is left with the suspicion that The New Life is not in the end a novel at all, but a kind of long, flat, failed poem. Osman put the words in my mouth: "This new-fangled 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."

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice