Book review: Comic turn on the road to nowhere

The New Life by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Guneli Gun Faber & Faber, pounds 14.99
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Indy Lifestyle Online
What is it in a novel that keeps one turning the pages? We all know what it means to be gripped by a novel but no-one has yet succeeded in analysing the phenomenon. It has nothing to do with action or psychology, since Kafka is just as gripping as John Buchan and Sterne as Jane Austen. Muriel Spark, telling us in the first sentence what is going to happen at the end, holds us more firmly than any Victorian novelist. What critics who search for laws forget is that what grips me may leave you bored, or vice versa.

These thoughts come to mind reading Orhan Pamuk's new novel. It comes larded with praise: the New York Times compares him to Borges and Calvino, while the New Yorker, in the person of no less a pundit than John Updike, goes one better and compares him to Proust. And we are told by the publishers that this new novel "is the fastest selling book in Turkish history and sold 200,000 copies in less than a year".

Yet I found it unreadable. I was unable to drum up interest in the characters or style or form; and I found Pamuk's own references to Dante's New Life and Rilke's Duino Elegies embarrassing. They seemed like attempts to give weight to something that, to my eyes, had about as much weight as a comic and that, for all its echoes of Borges and Kundera, was much more like a pale imitation of Thomas Pynchon.

All this is made even more ironic by the fact that the novel is actually about the reading of a book that changes your life. The first-person narrator, a university student, reads this mysterious book one day and it does indeed change his life. We are not told what was in the book, only its effect. The narrator falls in love with a woman student, leaves home and sets out with her on a series of interminable bus rides in which what is shown on the TV screen is more important than what passes outside the windows or what the characters say or think.

There are car crashes, shootings, sinister plots, but our hero passes through all these unscathed. "Part road novel, part metaphysical mystery" says the blurb, praising "a beautiful and enchanting book, written with constant wit and elegance". I suppose I don't much like road novels or metaphysical mysteries, except when they have the brevity and magic of Borges. It may also be, of course, that Pamuk has been badly let down by his translator, but I quite fail to see the wit and elegance in an absolutely typical passage such as this: "Well, life was like that. Actually everything was quite simple. A fanatical old guy who wrote for the railway magazine and who despised bus travel and bus accidents had written some sort of book, inspired by the children's comics he had penned himself. Then, some years later, optimistic young men such as ourselves who had read those comics in our childhood happened to read the book, and believing that our whole lives were changed from top to bottom, we slipped off the course of our lives. The magic in this book! The miracle of life! How had it happened?"

On the other hand, can 200,000 Turks be wrong? That is the real metaphysical mystery.

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