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."

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