Authors: Orhan Pamuk
Even so, I succeeded in having breakfast with my mother as usual, savoring the smell of toast, thumbing through the morning edition of
glancing at Jelal Salik's column. As if nothing were out of the ordinary, I had some of the cheese and smiled into my mother's good-natured face. The clatter of cups, spoons, and the teakettle, the noise of the citrus truck in the street were telling me to trust in the normal flow of life, but I wasn't deceived. When I stepped outside, I was so sure the world had been utterly transformed that I was not embarrassed to be wearing my dead father's worn and cumbersome overcoat.
I walked to the station and got on the train; I got off the train and boarded the ferry; at KarakÃ¶y I leapt out on the landing; I elbowed my way up the stairs, got on the bus and arrived at Taksim Square; on my way to the university, I stopped briefly and watched some gypsies hawking flowers on the sidewalk. How could I trust life to continue as in the past? Or forget I had ever read the book? For a moment the prospect before me seemed so terrifying that I felt like running away.
At the lecture session on stress mechanics, I solemnly copied down the schemata, the figures and formulas on the blackboard. When the bald-headed professor was not writing something on the board, I folded my arms on my chest and listened to his mellow voice. Was I really listening? Or just pretending to listen like anybody else, playing the part of a student in the department of civil engineering at the Technical University? I couldn't say. But a while later, when I sensed that the familiar old world was intolerably hopeless, my heart began to beat fast, my head began to swim as if a drug were coursing through my veins, and I was thrilled with the power that surged from the book, spreading gradually from its locus in my neck throughout my entire body. The new world had already annulled all existence and transformed the present into the past. Things I saw, things I touched were all pathetically old.
Two days before, when I first laid eyes on the book, it was in the hands of a girl from architecture. She was getting something at the canteen in the lower level and needed to find her wallet, but because she was carrying something else in her other hand, she was unable to rummage through her bag. The object in her hand was a book and, in an effort to free her hand, she was forced to put the book down just for a moment on the table where I was sitting; and I had, just for a moment, stared at the book placed on my table. That was all there was to the coincidence that had changed my life. On my way home that afternoon, when I saw another copy of it among the old tomes, pamphlets, volumes of poetry and divination, love stories and political thrillers being sold in a sidewalk stall, I had bought the book.
The moment the noon bell buzzed, most of the other students hurried up the stairs to get in the cafeteria line, but I just sat there at my desk. Then I wandered through the halls, went down to the canteen, passed through courtyards, strolled down colonnaded galleries, went into empty classrooms; I looked through windows to see snow-laden trees in the park across the way, and had some water in the bathroom. I walked and walked, up and down all over TaÅkÄ±Åla Hall. The girl was nowhere to be seen, but I was not worried.
After the noon hour, the hallways got even more crowded. I walked the corridors all through the school of architecture, I went into the drafting rooms, I watched coin games being played on the tables; I sat in a corner and, putting together a newspaper that had fallen apart, I read it. I took to the corridors once more, went up and down staircases, listened to conversations about soccer, politics, and what was on TV last night. I joined a group making light of some movie star's decision to have a child, I offered around my lighter and cigarettes; someone was telling a joke, I listened to it and, what's more, while I did all this, I provided good-natured replies to whoever stopped and asked me if I had seen so-and-so. The times I didn't manage to find a couple of friends to josh around with, or windows to look out of, or a destination to walk to, I walked briskly with great determination in some direction or other, as if I had something very important on my mind and was in an awful hurry. But since I had no particular goal, should I find myself at the library entrance, or up the staircase, or run into someone who asked for a cigarette, I changed direction, blended into the throng, or stopped to light up. I was just about to look at a newly posted announcement on a bulletin board when my heart began to pound, then my heart took off and left me helpless. There she was, the girl in whose hand I had seen the book; moving away from me in the crowd, but walking away ever so slowly as in a dream, she seemed, for some reason, to beckon me to her. I lost my head, I was no longer myself, I just knew it, I let myself follow her.
She was wearing a dress that was pale but not white, it was the lightest of shades to which I could assign no color. I caught up with her before she reached the staircase, and when I caught a glimpse of her up close, the radiance of her face was quite as powerful as the light that the book emanated, but ever so gentle. I was in this world, breathing at the threshold of the new life. The longer I beheld her radiance, the more I understood my heart would no longer heed me.
I told her I had read the book. I told her I'd read the book after seeing it in her hand. I had my own world before reading the book, I said, but after reading the book, I now had another world. We had to talk, I said, for I was left entirely on my own.
“I have a class now,” she said.
My heart missed a couple of beats. Perhaps the girl had guessed my bewilderment; she thought it over for a moment.
“All right,” she said, making up her mind. “Let's find a free classroom and talk.”
We found a classroom on the second floor that was not in use. My legs trembled as I walked in. I couldn't figure out how to tell her I was aware of the world that the book promised me, considering that the book had spoken to me in whispers, opening up as if yielding a secret. The girl said her name was Janan, and I told her mine.
“Why are you so drawn to the book?” she asked.
I had a notion to say, Angel, because you have read it. But how did I come up with this angel business anyway? My mind was in confusion. My mind is always getting confused, Angel, but could it be that someone will help me?
“My whole life was changed after reading the book,” I said. “The room, the house, the world where I live ceased to be mine, making me feel I have no domicile. I first saw the book in your hand; so you too must have read it. Tell me about the world you traveled to and back. Tell me what I must do to set foot in that world. Give me an explanation as to why we are still here. Tell me how the new world can be as familiar as my home and yet my home as strange as the new world.”
Who knows how much longer I would have gone on in this vein, chapter and verse, but my eyes seemed to be momentarily dazzled. The snowy light of the winter afternoon was so consistent and clear outside that the windows of the little chalk-laden classroom seemed to be made of ice. I looked at her, afraid to look in her face.
“What would you be willing to do to reach the world in the book?” she asked.
Her face was pale, her hair light brown, her gaze gentle; if she was of this world, she seemed to have been drawn from memory; if she was from the future, then she was the harbinger of dread and sorrow. I gazed at her without being aware of gazing, as if I were fearful that if I looked at her too intently the situation would become real.
“I would do anything,” I said.
She gazed at me sweetly, a hint of a smile on her lips. How must you act when a phenomenally beautiful and charming girl gazes at you like that? How to hold the matches, light a cigarette, look out the window, talk to her, confront her, take a breath? They never teach these things in the classroom. People like me writhe in pain fecklessly, trying to conceal the pounding of their hearts.
“What do you mean by anything?” she asked me.
“Everything,” I said and fell silent, listening to my heartbeats.
I don't know why but I suddenly had an image of long journeys that seemed endless, the deluges of myth and legend, labyrinthine streets that vanish, sad trees, muddy rivers, gardens, countries. If I were to embrace her one day, I must venture forth to these places.
“Would you be willing to face death, for example?”
“Even if you knew that some people would kill you for reading the book?”
I tried to smile, listening to the engineering student inside me say: It's only a book, after all! But Janan was watching me with rapt attention. I thought with misgiving that I'd never get anywhere near her, nor the world in the book, if I were careless and said something wrong.
“I don't think anyone's going to kill me or anything,” I said, acting the part of some character I couldn't name. “But even if that were the case, I would truly not be afraid of death.”
Her honey-colored eyes flashed for a split second in the chalky light that filtered into the room. “Do you think that world really exists? Or is it a mere fantasy dreamed up and written in a book?”
“That world has to exist!” I said. “You are so beautiful that I know you come from there.”
She took a couple of swift steps toward me. She held my head between her hands, reached up, and kissed me on the lips. Her tongue lingered briefly on my mouth. She stepped back, allowing me to hold her lithe body at arm's length.
“You are so brave!” she said.
I picked up some kind of a fragrance, the smell of cologne. I stepped toward her as if intoxicated. A couple of boisterous students went past the classroom door.
“Wait a minute and listen to me, please,” she said. “You must tell Mehmet everything you've told me. He did go to the world in the book and managed to come back. He came back from there, he knows, you understand? Yet he doesn't believe others can also get there. He's lived through terrible things and lost his faith. Will you talk to him?”
“Who's this Mehmet?”
“Be in front of Room 201 in ten minutes, before class starts,” she said and went out the door suddenly; she vanished.
The room felt totally empty, as if I weren't there either. I stood there astounded. No one had ever kissed me like that before, no one had ever looked at me like that. And now I was left alone. I was afraid, thinking I would never see her again, nor ever again be able to plant my feet squarely on the ground. I wanted to run after her, but my heart was beating so fast that I was afraid to breathe. The bright white light had dazed not only my eyes but also my mind. It's all because of the book, I said to myself and instantly knew that I loved the book and wanted to exist in its universeâso much that I thought for a moment tears would stream down my eyes. It was the book's existence that kept me going, and I somehow knew the girl would surely embrace me once more. But right now I felt the whole world had pulled up and left me.
I heard a racket below, and looking down, I saw a bunch of construction engineering students noisily throwing snowballs at each other near the edge of the park. I watched them without really registering what I was seeing. There was nothing left of the child in me. I had slipped away.
It has happened to all of us: one day, one ordinary day when we imagine we're making our routine rounds in the world with ticket stubs and tobacco shreds in our pockets, our heads full of news items, traffic noise, troublesome monologues, we suddenly realize we are already someplace else, that we are not actually where our feet have taken us. I had long slipped away; I had melted into a color paler than pale where I stood behind the windowpane made of ice. If you are to come down to earth, or any kind of reality, you must then hold a girl,
girl, hold on to her and win her love. How quickly had my racing heart learned all this claptrap! I was in love. I yielded myself to the immeasurable measure of my heart. I looked at my watch. Eight minutes to go.
I walked like a ghost through the high-ceilinged hallways, oddly aware of my body, my life, my face, my story. Would I encounter her in the crowd? If I did chance upon her, what would I say? How was my face? I cannot remember. I went into the washroom next to the staircase, put my mouth on the water spout, and drank. I looked in the mirror to see my mouth that had so recently been kissed. Mom, I am in love. I am slipping away, Mom. Mom, I am afraid, but I will do anything for her. I will ask Janan, who is this Mehmet anyway? Why is he scared? Who are these people who want to kill those who've read the book? I fear nothing. If one has understood the book and believed in it, as I myself have, one would naturally have no fear.
Back among the crowd, I again found myself walking briskly as if I had important business. I went up to the second floor and walked along the tall windows that look down on the fountain courtyard, walked and walked, leaving myself behind, thinking of Janan with every step. I went by classmates congregated for our next class. Guess what! Only a little while ago a very attractive girl kissed me, and how! My legs were taking me swiftly to my destiny, a destiny that contained dark woods, hotel rooms, mauve and azure phantoms, life, peace, and death.
When I reached Room 201 three minutes before class, I picked Mehmet out of the crowd in the hall even before I saw Janan standing near him. He was pale, tall and thin as myself, pensive, preoccupied, wan. I had a vague memory of having seen him before in Janan's company. He knows more than I do, I speculated; he has done more living; he's even a couple of years older than me. How he knew who I was, I cannot say, but he took me aside, behind the lockers.
“I hear you've read the book,” he said. “What's in it for you?”
“A new life.”
“Do you buy it?”
His complexion looked so wan it made me dread the things he must have gone through.
“Look, listen to me,” he said. “I too went for it. I thought I could find that world. I was always on some bus to some place or other, going from town to town, thinking I would find that land, those people, the very streets. Believe me, at the end there is nothing but death. They kill without mercy. They could be watching us even now.”