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Black as in dull, dark and very, very dangerous

Stand back and call the Semtex squad. From Turkey hails a yarn of quite spectacular boredom. By Hugo Barnacle
The Black Book

by Orhan Panuk trans Guneli Gun

Faber, pounds 14.99

The business of reading certain novels is, like bomb disposal, best left to professionals. This one, for instance, is a fiendish device capable of obliterating the will to live in any innocent reader who approaches it without the proper critical equipment.

The main charge consists of a massive quantity of high-grade tedium. Only the shadowy group known as the post-modernist movement has access to this deadly material in such colossal amounts, and they have shown themselves ruthless in using it in the past. Responsibility for the attempted outrage is pretty clearly theirs.

The charge is designed to be triggered by a relay of multiple hollow pretensions so cunningly laid out that it is almost impossible to avoid them wherever you try to open the book. Besides that, there is an elaborate series of anti-handling mechanisms, mainly digressive in pattern, though several of the self-reflexive type are included as back-up. To make the job of defusing still trickier, there are entire dummy circuits of literary allusions which look convincing but actually serve no purpose at all.

Make no mistake, the man who dreamt this one up knew exactly what he was doing. He tells us early on that "the never-ending adventures of lovers who vanish into obscure cities tracking down a mystery'' constitute his ideal. So he gives us the story of a young Istanbul lawyer, Galip, who comes home one evening to find that his wife Ruya has left him.The contents of her "19-word farewell note'' are never disclosed. Her half-brother Jelal, a famous newspaper columnist, has disappeared the same day.

Ruya's favourite reading was detective novels, which Galip always deplored. For him, "the only detective novel worth reading would be one in which the writer himself didn't know the identity of the murderer.'' Here is the post-modernist's trademark taunt, showing his fathomless contempt for his victims - we realise Ruya and Jelal will get killed and we won't find out who did it. Galip, who has already slipped into first-person narration for a spell, will turn out to be "the writer'', none of it will matter a toss, and there are 350 pages of this stuff still to go.

Since the feeble story can't conceivably account for all that bulk, what is it that makes the book so very big and heavy? The answer hits you - tedium! However, it's too late - it's already gone up in your face. Very, very nasty.

Having dismantled it, I can safely show you some of the complex engineering that goes to produce this brutally simple result. Every time a characters speaks, he/she embarks on a story or lecture, talking in paragraphs up to four pages long and in language like this: "And on those sad fall evenings when the night comes early, looking at the naked trees in the pale light from the apartment buildings, I knew that he would think of me...''

There are references to Lewis Carroll, Poe, Dante, Dostoevsky, the Arabian Nights, Sufism, cryptography, conspiracies. They don't mean anything. "Everything that's written... alludes not to life but, simply by virtue of having been written, alludes to some dream.'' Jelal's columns are inserted throughout the text and we are told they contain coded messages, but the codes we are given naturally don't work. Galip notices the various designs on carrier-bags toted by the Istanbul crowds and thinks, "Obviously they were all signs of a mystery. But what was the mystery?'' At the very end, Jelal's work is put down as "nonsense concerning his own private obsessions... unreadable and much too long.'' One last post-modern taunt.

You may wonder how anyone could devote such skill and workmanship to the sole purpose of boring his fellow human beings to bits. We may never know. All that is certain is that, even reduced to its components, this thing could prove lethal in the wrong hands. I dread to think what might happen if the French got hold of it, or the agents of a certain Swedish dynamite tycoon, so it remains necessary to destroy it with a controlled critical explosion, thus - don't buy this one. It's a bummer.