THE NEW LIFE
By Orhan Pamuk
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
296 pp., $24
Orhan Pamuk's most recent novel, "The New Life," was a record-breaking bestseller in his native Turkey, which would seem to indicate a surprisingly keen appetite for contemporary fiction among that country's reading public. The phenomenon seems a little like the unexpected popularity of Umberto Eco's novels ("The Name of the Rose," "Foucault's Pendulum") in the United States.
Pamuk is one of the most prominent and popular writers of his generation in Turkey, and he has been gaining an international reputation as well. His work has been translated into 15 languages and two of his earlier novels, "The White Castle" and "The Black Book," were published to critical acclaim in America.
He writes with an appealing blend of simplicity and sophistication, deftly touching upon various timely, even fashionable, themes. But this story fails to engage at a deeper level.
"The New Life" is a kind of parable about a young man whose life is transformed by reading a book. The narrator, Osman, is a university student in Istanbul who lives at home with his widowed mother. One day, he reads a book that he feels was written expressly for him. Reading it, he feels he is on the brink of a richer, fuller, more radiant life, and he is determined to seek it out.
Osman's passion for the book is allied to his love for Janan, the beautiful young woman in whose hands he first saw the book. He is sure she is his destined partner. Unfortunately, Janan is in love with someone else: Mehmet, the charismatic young man who first introduced her to the book. But Mehmet has vanished, perhaps killed.
Osman sets off on a strange odyssey, riding buses all over Turkey in search of the new life. Before long, Janan joins him. She sits by his side, even shares a hotel room with him, but is unmoved by his desire for a physical relationship. Riding from town to town, they imagine they will somehow achieve the transformation they are looking for. Every so often, their dream-like journeying is rudely interrupted by a real-life accident. These disastrous moments not only provide Osman and Janan the chance to appropriate cash and identification papers from injured and dying fellow-passengers, but also promise to bring them closer to the "Angel" mentioned in their cherished book.
What, exactly, are the contents of that mysterious tome? This is something that Pamuk deliberately leaves unclear, except to let us know that it is neither a religious fundamentalist tract nor a left-wing political manifesto. But the book has enemies. Some people believe it poses a dangerous threat to the Turkish way of life, that it is part of some grand Western conspiracy to inflict Coca- Cola and burgers on a sherbet-and-borek-(phyllo and meat pastry) loving nation. These people, in turn, have organized their own modest counter conspiracy against the "Great Conspiracy."
Although "The New Life" is not an unusually long novel, it is perhaps too long for what it is. It lacks the kind of character development associated with realistic novels, but it fails as a parable to crystallize its somewhat murky cultural, political, and metaphysical themes. It demonstrates considerable invention, grace, and irony, but its various parts never really cohere into a focused, self-elucidating whole.
* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.