Authors: Orhan Pamuk
“I'm going out,” I said.
“What time will you get back?” my mother said. “Shall I wait up?”
“Don't, or you'll fall asleep in front of the TV again.”
“Have you turned off the light in your room?”
So I ventured out into the precincts of my childhood where I had lived for twenty-two years, walking in the streets as if I were in the danger zone in some strange realm. Damp December air touched my face like a light breeze, making me think a few things had possibly penetrated through from the old world into this new world that I had entered, things which I should soon come across in the streets that constituted my life. I felt like running.
I walked briskly along unlighted sidewalks, avoiding hulking garbage cans and craters of mud, watching a new world materialize with each step I took. The plane and poplar trees that I'd known since my childhood still seemed the same planes and poplars, but they were bereft of their powers of association and memory. I observed the haggard trees, the familiar two-story houses, the grimy apartment buildings I had watched being built from the stage when they were mere mortar pits to the time when the roofs were raised and tiled, and where I played later as new playmates moved in; yet these images did not seem to be inalienable pieces of my life but photographs that I couldn't remember being taken: I recognized the shadows, the lighted windows, the trees in the yard, the lettering at the entrances, but the objects I recognized exerted no pull on my sensibilities. My old world was all around me, in the street across from me, here, there, everywhere, in the form of familiar grocery-store windows, streetlights at the ErenkÃ¶y Station Square, bakery ovens still baking
fruit crates that belonged to the greengrocer, pushcarts, the pastry shop called Life, dilapidated trucks, tarpaulins, tired and obscure faces. Part of my heart, where I carried the book surreptitiously as if it were a sin, had frozen itself against all the forms that were softly shimmering in the city lights. I wanted to run away from these well-known streets, away from the sadness of rain-drenched trees, the grocer's and the butcher's brightly lit signs, neon letters reflected on the asphalt and in the rain puddles. A light wind rose, droplets fell off the trees, and there was a roaring in my ears that made me decide the book must be a mystery that had been bestowed upon me. I was gripped with fear. I wanted to talk to other people.
At the Station Square, I made for the Youth CafÃ©, where some of my neighborhood friends still met in the evenings, playing cards, watching the soccer game, or just hanging out. Someone I knew from the university who put in time at his father's shoe store and another from the neighborhood who played amateur-league soccer were at the table in the back, chatting in the black-and-white light reflected off the TV screen. In front of them were newspapers that had fallen to pieces from being read too much, two tea glasses, cigarettes, and a bottle of beer bought at the grocery and concealed on the seat of a chair. I needed to have a long conversation, maybe one that went on for hours and hours, but I soon realized I couldn't talk to these two. I was gripped with a sorrow that brought tears into my eyes for a moment, but I pulled myself together arrogantly: I could only bare my soul to persons chosen from among those who already existed in the world implied by the book.
That was how I almost came to believe I had total possession of my future, but I also knew what possessed me at present was the book. Not only had the book permeated my being like a secret or a sin, it had dragged me into the kind of speechlessness one experiences in dreams. Where were the kindred spirits with whom I could talk? Where was the country in which I'd find the dream that spoke to my heart? Where were those who had also read the book? Where?
I walked across the train tracks, took back streets, trampled on yellow autumn leaves stuck to the pavement. A deep feeling of optimism surged up inside me. If only I could always walk like this, walking fast, without stopping, if only I could go on journeys, it seemed I'd reach the universe in the book. The glow of the new life I felt inside me existed in a faraway place, even in a land that was unattainable, but I sensed that as long as I was in motion, I was getting closer. I could at least leave my old life behind me.
When I got to the shore, I was astonished that the sea looked pitch-black. Why hadn't I ever noticed before that the Sea of Marmara was so dark, so stern, and so cruel at night? It was as if objects spoke a language which I was beginning to hear, even if just barely, in the temporal silence into which the book had lured me. For a moment I felt the weight of the gently swaying sea like the flash of my own intractable death that I'd felt inside me while reading the book, but it was not a sensation of “the end has come” brought on by actual death; it was more the curiosity and excitement of someone beginning a new life that animated me.
I walked up and down the beach. I used to come here with the kids in the neighborhood to look through the piles of stuff the sea deposited along the shoreâthe tin cans, plastic balls, bottles, plastic flip-flops, clothes pins, light bulbs, plastic dollsâsearching for something, a magic talisman from some treasury, a shiny new article the use of which we couldn't begin to fathom. For a moment I sensed that if any old object from my old world were to be discovered and scrutinized now, from my new viewpoint enlightened by the book, it could be transformed into that magical piece children are always looking for. At the same time I was so besieged by the feeling that the book had isolated me from the world, I thought the dark sea would suddenly swell, pull me into itself, and swallow me. I was beset with anxiety and started walking briskly, not for the sake of observing the new world actualize with every step I took, but to be alone with the book in my room as soon as possible. I almost ran, already envisioning myself as someone who was created out of the light that emanated from the book. This tended to soothe me.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
My father had had a good friend about his own age who had also worked for the State Railroads for many years and had even risen to the rank of inspector; he wrote articles in
magazine for railroad buffs. Besides that, he wrote and illustrated children's comics which were published in the series called Weekly Adventures for Children. There were many times when I ran home to lose myself in one of the comics like
Peter and Pertev
Kamer Visits America
that Uncle Railman RÄ±fkÄ± presented to me, but those children's books always came to an end. The last page said “The End” just like in the movies and, reading those six letters, not only did I come to the exit point of the country where I'd wanted to remain, I was once again painfully aware that the magic realm was just a place made up by Uncle Railman RÄ±fkÄ±.
In contrast, everything in the book I wanted to read again was true; and that's why I carried the book inside me and why the wet streets I tore through did not appear real but seemed like part of a boring homework assignment I'd been given as punishment. After all, the book revealed, so it seemed to me, the meaning of my existence.
I'd gone across the railroad tracks and was coming around the mosque when, just as I was about to step in a mud puddle, I leapt away, my foot slipped, and I stumbled and fell to one knee on the muddy pavement. I pulled myself up immediately and was about to go my way.
“Oh, my, you almost had a bad fall, my boy!” said a bearded old man who'd seen me take the spill. “You hurt?”
“Yes,” I said. “My father died yesterday. We buried him today. He was a shitty guy; he drank, beat my mother, didn't want us around. I lived in Viran BaÄ all those years.”
Viran BaÄ yet! Where in the world did I come up with this town called Viran BaÄ? Perhaps the old guy was on to my lies, but momentarily I convinced myself that I was too clever by half. I couldn't tell if it was the lies I made up, or the book, or simply the old man's stupefied face that prompted me, but I kept telling myself: “Never fear, never fear! The world in the book is real!” But I was afraid.
I had heard of others who had read a book only to have their lives disintegrate. I'd read the account of someone who had read a book called
Fundamental Principles of Philosophy;
in total agreement with the book, which he read in one night, he joined the Revolutionary Proletarian Advance Guard the very next day, only to be nabbed three days later robbing a bank and end up doing time for the next ten years. I also knew about those who had stayed awake the whole night reading books such as
Islam and the New Ethos
The Betrayal of Westernization,
then immediately abandoned the tavern for the mosque, sat themselves on those ice-cold rugs doused with rosewater, and began preparing patiently for the next life which was not due for another fifty years. I had even met some who got carried away by books with titles like
Love Sets You Free
and although these people were the sort who were capable of believing in astrology, they too could say in all sincerity, “This book changed my life overnight!”
Actually, the frightening thing on my mind was not even the bathos of these scenarios: I was afraid of isolation. I was afraid of the sorts of things a fool like me might very well end up doing, such as misunderstanding the book, being shallow or, as the case may be, not shallow, being different, drowning in love, being privy to the mysteries of the universe but looking ridiculous all my life explaining the mystery to those who are not in the least interested, going to jail, being considered a crackpot, comprehending at last that the world is even crueler than I'd imagined, being unable to get pretty girls to love me. If the contents of the book were true, if life was indeed like what I read in the book, if such a world was possible, then it was impossible to understand why people needed to go to prayer, why they yakked their lives away at coffeehouses, why they had to sit in front of the TV set in the evening so as not to die of boredom, unwilling to close even their curtains all the way, just in case something halfway interesting in the street might also be watched, like a car speeding by, a horse neighing, or a drunk cutting loose.
I can't figure out how long it was before I realized I was standing in front of Uncle Railman RÄ±fkÄ±'s building and staring up into his second-floor flat through the half-open curtains. I had perhaps realized it without realizing it, and I was instinctively sending him my regards on the eve of my new life. There was an odd wish on my mind. I wanted to take a close look at the objects I'd seen in his house when my father and I had last paid him a visit. The canaries in the cage, the barometer on the wall, the meticulously framed pictures of railroad trains, the breakfront in which cordial sets, miniature railway cars, a silver candy dish, a conductor's punch, the railroad service medals were placed in one half of the showcase and maybe forty or fifty books in the other half, the unused samovar standing on top of it, the playing cards on the tableÂ â¦ Through the half-open curtains, I could see the light emanating from the TV but not the set itself.
A surge of determination suddenly hit me out of nowhere, prompting me to get on top of the wall around the front yard and see not only the TV set Uncle Railman RÄ±fkÄ±'s widow Aunt Ratibe was watching but also her head. She was seated in her dead husband's easy chair at a forty-five-degree angle to the TV and had hunched her head between her shoulders, just the way my mother does when watching TV, but instead of knitting, this one was smoking up a storm.
Uncle Railman RÄ±fkÄ± had died a year ahead of my father, who went of a heart attack last year, but Uncle RÄ±fkÄ±'s death was not due to natural causes. He was on his way to the coffeehouse one evening, it seems, when he was fired on and killed; the killer was never caught; there was some talk of sexual jealousy, which my father never believed a word of during the last year of his life. The couple had never had any children.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Past midnight, long after my mother had gone to sleep, I sat bolt upright at the table staring at the book between my elbows and, gradually, zealously, and wholeheartedly, I put out of my mind everything that identified this neighborhood as my ownâthe lights that went out all over the neighborhood and the city, the sadness of the wet and empty streets, the cry of the
vendor going around the block one last time, the premature cawing of a couple of crows, the patient clatter of the freight train on the tracks long after the last commuter train had gone byâand I gave myself over totally to the light that emanated from the book. So everything that constituted my life and expectationsâlunches, movies, classmates, daily papers, soda pop, soccer games, desks, ferryboats, pretty girls, dreams of happiness, my future sweetheart, wife, office desk, mornings, breakfast, bus tickets, petty concerns, the statistics assignment that didn't get done, my old trousers, face, pajamas, night, magazines I masturbated to, my cigarettes, even my faithful bed which awaited me for that most reliable oblivionâall slipped my mind completely. And I found myself wandering in a land of light.
The next day I fell in love. 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.
As soon as I woke up in the morning, I reviewed all that had happened to me on the previous day and knew at once that the new realm which had opened before me was not just a momentary reverie but as real as my own torso and my limbs. Finding others who were in the same predicament as myself was of the utmost necessity to save myself from the feeling of unbearable loneliness that beset me in the new world into which I was projected.
It had snowed in the night, and snow had accumulated on the windowsills, the sidewalks, and the rooftops. In the chilly white light from outside, the open book on the table appeared sparer and more innocent than it was, which gave it a more ominous character.