I’m a big fan of narrative-style history books, and it’s always fun to see a heavily researched piece of history that floats along like a novel. The problem with Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City is that it fails, at times, to feel like a strong account of historical events. The book follows two and a half storylines that intertwine, if only geographically, but never intersect. The backdrop is the World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893, a now forgotten event that transfixed the world at the time. Daniel Burnham is the renowned architect of the Fair, beset by meddlers and bureaucrats; H. H. Holmes, whose torturous schemes are at times hard to fathom in their cruelty, is a serial killer who haunts Chicago during the Fair; and Patrick Prendergast, to whom the book only gives over two dozen or so pages, is an increasingly delusional man whose obsession with Chicago’s showy political scene leads to tragedy. The plotlines in the book are fascinating, both because Larson lends them a cinematic flair and because there is a continual sense of wonder that history has managed to forget such vibrant characters. Despite, or perhaps because of, Larsen’s ability to craft such a readable story, the book does inspire some raised eyebrows at times. A scan through the notes at the end of the book reveals the times when Larsen speculates about his characters in the absence of hard facts. While I don’t necessarily disagree with this practice, these moments in the book tend to feel transparent. Likewise, the structure of the book is a bit flimsy as the three characters within share little but being in the same city during the same period of time, and the strenuous effort put forth by Larsen to connect these three characters tends to detract from the stories themselves, as each character is certainly worthy of his own book (even the poor, bewildered Prendergast). Despite these flaws, the book was still a delight to read, especially on my daily rides on Chicago’s elevated trains which still snake through the city as they did when the World’s Fair was held here in 1893.
There is a kind of Turkish music called Arabesk. I’m not an expert, but by rough definition it is very sad and melodramatic, the kind of music to which old men sit and drink a booze called rakı (lion’s milk, to the Arabesk crowd) and wave their hands and sing along and get teary-eyed and feel sad. Arabesk songs have titles like “God Hates a Lie,” “Woman in Pain,” “Am I not a Human Being?,” and “I Have the Suffering, You Have the Cure” (Dert Bende, my personal favorite, by Ajda Pekkan). Sometimes Turkish people laugh at me when I say I like this kind of music, but I think it’s the most beautiful music alive. I can’t understand all of it (maybe that’s why I like it so much), but in the right mood, it makes my heart crack in a thousand pieces. (I’m not kidding about the booze, by the way. On YouTube, under songs by the famous Arabesk singer Bergen, there are comments like “I’m listening and drinking rakı,” to which someone will respond “Drink, brother, drink. I’m having a beer.”)
Arabesk is music for indoors smoking and lost love and breaking up or knocking up or beating up. Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence is like an Arabesk song, as written by Marcel Proust. It opens like this:
It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn’t know it. Had I known, had I cherished this gift, would everything have turned out differently? Yes, if I had recognized this instant of perfect happiness, I would have held it fast and never let it slip away…
Someone get me a drink.
In the streets in Beyoğlu, close to where the novel takes place, there are lots of shops selling postcards and posters and old magazines and all manner of stuff. Once I bought an Efes beer advertisement from the seventies showing a lively technicolored family around the kitchen table–Mom and Dad enjoying a glass of the national brew. These were the triumphant modern citizens of Atatürk’s Turkey! Look how bright and forward-thinking! Examine Ma’s stylish permanent wave. Of course, what you can’t see in the ad is the perpetual struggle between the ultra-nationalists, the leftists, the Islamists, the fascists, and other Ists, a struggle punctuated by the military, which every ten years or so marched in and told everyone to fuck right off. Nor do you see the eternal struggle between secularity and religion, the eternal embarrassment of the rich and urbane for the poor and benighted, or the eternal wrangling over virginity.
Orhan Pamuk, of course, can see all this, although his central character is a citizen of that swinging, modern Turkey, for whom the nation’s sociopolitical struggles are not a primary concern. Kemal, the novel’s protagonist, is one of the sophisticated rich who gets imported liquor for parties at the Hilton (rather than the provincial rich, who gape at uncovered women and get fruit sodas). By chance or destiny or whatever, Kemal, engaged to a fellow bright young thing, starts an affair with an unpedigreed relative, Füsun. There has been big talk on the dearth of sex in the writing of contemporary men–this book has sex, by God. Right from the get-go, there are big pear breasts and honey skin and nipples like strawberries and trysts in an airless apartment. The affair (and Kemal’s engagement) end rather quickly, but the ensuing anguish and thwarted desire and inscrutable looks stretch on almost a decade.
In an effort to win back the unsophisticated relative, Kemal spurns the trendy restaurants and cafes of his peers, going instead to her family’s shabby home to sit, night after night after night. The beloved Füsun, an aspiring actress whose emotional depths are for the most part unplumbable, appears to be happy with her chubby husband, a screenwriter and director. Cousin Kemal, they are all agreed, will finance the film that will propel her to success, and in the meantime they drink in seedy film hangouts (probably with Ajda Pekkan) and smoke an obscene number of cigarettes. All the while, everyone behaves as though brooding Kemal isn’t dying of love, and brooding Kemal, displaying markedly kleptomaniac traits, pockets everything his beloved touches. One day, these objects will populate his museum. At about year six of the family sitting, you’re not sure whether Kemal is a crazy as a loon, if this woman wants anything to do with him, if she’s a moron, if she’s a victim, if he’s one of the world’s great lovers, or if he’s just an asshole. I can’t say more, for fear of spoilers.
Meanwhile, Istanbul is happening all around, the sounds and the smells and the politics and the writhing humanity. It’s no secret that Orhan Pamuk knows and loves his city, and it is a character here as in his other books. Beyond Kemal and his Arabesk yearning, the story is about Turkey, about the collective life of the Turks, sitting in their living rooms, smoking their cigarettes, watching the state channel, and soothing themselves with food and drink and china dogs. In the streets, the politically-minded thrash around and exchange bullets toward an obscure purpose.
Essays about Turkish literature and criticism often seem obsessed with the idea of “belatedness.” Even those scholars who wish to protest this characterization seem to reify it through constant iteration–that Turkey is always behind. Pamuk’s novel engages this idea in a comic way, describing the wounds sustained by Kemal and his hip cohort as they attempt to use another mysterious gadget imported from the West (can openers and the like). Of an evening in Paris, Kemal writes:
I caught myself asking the questions that occur to every Turk who goes abroad (if he has some education and a bit of money): What did these Europeans think about me? What did they think about us all?
(I’ve always felt that the United States and Turkey have a number of things in common, especially in this regard, but that’s another essay).
Even as Pamuk writes of a country running to catch up, he writes of a country that is so unlike anywhere else, and so much itself and as a consequence so desirable, that the rest of the us find ourselves scratching at its door like puppies hoping to be let in. For all that Pamuk the citizen has been embroiled in legal struggles with the Turkish state, he strikes me in one sense as an elemental patriot. To chronicle something obsessively is a form of love, and Pamuk documents the details of his Istanbul obsessively, just as his character Kemal creates his museum of innocence out of the universe of meaningless bric-a-brac surrounding his beloved.
The last Orhan Pamuk novel I read was The Black Book, which was so esoteric that I found it a struggle. This book seems more straightforward, but that’s in style only. Its themes run deep and dark, even if they mirror the preoccupations of a seventies crooner. The style’s simplicity is, of course, deceptive; it’s not easy to write hundreds of pages of sitting, smoking, drinking, brooding. Nor has Pamuk abandoned his solemn post-modern playfulness. Deliberately, I believe (particularly since he mentions them), he invokes Nabokov (especially Ada and The Gift) and Proust. Furthermore, the extraordinary man is actually creating a real Museum of Innocence, in which he will display the various knick-knacks and impedimenta of daily life. That’s so many posts past modern, I don’t know what it is.
One day I hope to be able to read this in Turkish. I’m on page 8 of Kar (Snow), which I bought in 2006, so I have a lot of work to do. But The Museum of Innocence is not a novel that seems to suffer in translation, which is beautifully executed by Maureen Freely. I was spellbound for four days.
It’s really a remarkable book. Read it, and bring your rakı and your nicorette. Bring your sad songs and your broken heart. If you have the suffering, I have the cure.
Don DeLillo has said that his mammoth Underworld emerged from the juxtaposition of two headlines on the front page of a 1954 New York Times. One trumpeted a pennant-winning home run by the Giants’ Bobby Thomson. The other announced that the Russians had tested their first atomic bomb. Each, in its own way, was a shot heard ’round the world.For anyone paying attention, the International section of this Saturday’s Times offered a similarly suggestive juxtaposition: three articles on a single page reported suspicious events in and around Vladimir Putin’s Russia. To wit: The Kremlin informed a group of dissident journalists that they were going to be evicted from their offices. Leaders of an opposition party, detained by police on thin pretenses, were forced to miss a protest rally. And the government of Estonia, which had offended Russian nationalists by taking down a monument to Soviet soldiers, had its Internet service disrupted by a ferocious denial-of-service attack (which originated from Russian servers). In each case, the reporter hesitated to blame Putin directly, but the overall picture is grim. And this is not even to mention the radiation poisoning plots, or the Chechen conflict. Basically, the man our president once certified as “a good soul” is consolidating power with a kommissarial zeal. The mystery is why the Russian people, after seven decades of totalitarian misrule and centuries of feudalism, are putting up with it.A quick answer might be that, after the economic deprivations of the Communist era, they’re willing to trade freedom for a little prosperity. A more complicated one (not unrelated to the rise of ethnic gangs in Iraq) might involve the psychological toll totalitarianism exacts on its masses. Call it The Captive Mind, or Stockholm Syndrome, but it’s basically a protection racket: authority seems to offer insurance against violence, where freedom seems to leave one exposed. Give a kid enough bruises, and he’s likely to get in line behind the schoolyard bully. The problem comes when the bully runs out of other victims.But a reading of Tatyana Tolstaya’s splendid contemporary novel The Slynx reminds us that the thirst for freedom and the hunger for authority are not merely the byproducts of Russia’s recent history. Rather, they are the reacting agents in much of the finest Russian literature. They lend the novels of Tolstaya’s great-uncle Leo – and the poems quoted by her characters in The Slynx – their signature phosphorescence. In the great American novel, the imperative to submit to something larger than oneself – tradition, law, religion – is usually an obstacle. Our Augies and Ishmaels and Rabbits set out to find their freedom. In Tolstoy’s Levin and Dostoevsky’s Karamazovs, individualism alternates – sometimes on the same page – with a sense that a greater freedom comes in accepting one’s duty and place in the world.Is this a radical simplification? Of course. But I feel licensed to make it. No one likes to speculate about the Russian soul more than the Russians. I want to emphasize here that The Slynx succeeds, radiantly, as a self-contained work of art. But a view to Russia’s literary and political history can only enrich one’s reading.The protagonist of The Slynx is a “golubchik” named Benedikt – born a century after a nuclear catastrophe has leveled Moscow and erased most cultural memory. Benedikt is a simple fellow, subsisting on mice and eking out an existence as a scrivener. He unquestioningly copies the decrees and poems written by Fyodor Kuzmich, the chief Murza of the village – even when those poems seem suspiciously Pushkinesque. Benedikt’s life strikes us as a nightmare of deprivation, but because he has nothing to compare it to, he doesn’t know it. His only inkling is a melancholy feeling that comes over him from time to time, which he blames on a mythical predator said to live in the forest… The Slynx.Like a Russian George Saunders, Tolstaya creates a sci-fi bizarro world seemingly without effort – the details are there when she reaches for them. And, like Saunders, she renders her world in an entirely original idiom. Her depictions of life in the village of Fyodor-Kuzmichsk (natch) leaven poetic stream of consciousness with a salty and frequently hilarious orality. The effect Tolstaya creates, hovering between second- and third-person narration, is like nothing I’ve ever read. The narrator both is and isn’t Benedikt. Benedikt both is and isn’t us. Here’s a little taste, in Jamey Gambrell’s supple translation:In the summer the Scribe is like an ordinary Golubchik – a sickle on his shoulder and into the fields and glades to cut goosefoot, horsetail. Bring in the sheaves. You tie them up – lug them to the shed, and go back again, another time, once more, all over, run, run, run. While he’s gone the neighbors or a stranger will filch a couple of sheaves for sure, sometimes from the field, sometimes straight from the shed. But that’s all right: they steal from me, and I’ll get good and mad and steal from them, those guys will steal from these guys – and so it goes in a circle. It comes out fair. Everyone steals, but everyone ends up with their own. More or less.For the first half of the book, we keep rooting for him to awaken, like his Anglo counterparts in 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, to the dystopia he’s living in. As he discovers the source of Fyodor Kuzmich’s poems, and develops an appetite for books, consciousness-raising starts to seem inevitable. But – spoiler alert – consciousness will not prove to be synonymous with freedom. In fact, after aiding a putsch, Benedikt will become “Deputy for Defense and Marine and Oceanic Affairs.” Rather than living out his books, he seems content to live in them. More Bovary than Quixote.Tolstaya is well-known in Russia as a television personality and an outspoken critic. She began her first and only novel under Gorbachev and finished it under Putin. In the West, where knowledge is seen as a path to freedom, the plot trajectory she arrived at may strike some readers as perverse. What at first seems an allegory of Communism becomes something more unsettling: an examination of our universal frailty.In light of what’s happening in Moscow right now, the final pages of The Slynx take on a resonance almost too painful to countenance. History is not only a nightmare… in Russia, it seems to be a recurring one. Tolstaya preserves the possibility of an awakening, of a more personal socialism or a more collective freedom. But she’s not optimistic.
As the war in Iraq commenced what seems like ages ago with the frenetic coverage of embedded reporters and the televised firefights, I remember looking forward to reading some of the books that would inevitably come out of this media frenzy. In the nearly two years since there have been many of these books, some good and some bad. I recently read a couple of them. Actually I listened to Naked in Baghdad by NPR correspondent Anne Garrels on the long drive from Chicago to New York. The audiobook is read by Garrels and her husband Vint Lawrence. Garrels’ strong, familiar voice added a lot to the experience. Though Garrels was one of just a handful of American journalists to stay in Baghdad during the run-up to war, the political and military machinations going on around her are just one element of the book. The meat of the book is devoted to her personal relationships with her fellow journalists, minders, drivers, and the myraid Iraqi officials who spent the regime’s final days collecting bribe money. As an inside look into the harrowing life of a war correspondant, the book is brilliant, filled with menacing bad guys and explosions that are way too close for comfort. But Garrels is at her absolute best as she delves into the backroom politics of the world of the macho foreign correspondant. She revels in the fact that American television left Baghdad before the war, leaving only an old school contingent of print reporters to cover the invasion from the capital. She pulls no puches as she berates CNN’s arrogance and Geraldo Rivera’s foolishness. Her demand is for professionalism over sensationalism.Most journalists were forced by uncertainties in Baghdad to cover the war by embedding with American units as they invaded Iraq. Rick Atkinson was one of these embedded journalists, and his book, In the Company of Soldiers tells the story of his time with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. Aside from his duties with the Washington Post, Atkinson is also a military historian of some repute (his World War II book An Army at Dawn won a Pulitzer in 2003) and it shows. He is interested most in the tactics employed during the invasion and in the commanders who implemented them. Where Garrels delivers portraits of shady Iraqi bureaucrats and flamboyant European journalists, Atikinson’s narrative is tied to Major General David Petraeus, a no-nonesense military man. The 101st, and Atkinson along with them, saw their share of action during those early days, but much of what transpired during those first weeks feels like a footnote — or ancient history — compared to all that has happened since. The most interesting parts of the book are the most personal. Atkinson’s daily struggles against the harshness of the desert and the austerity of military life shine far more brightly than the methodical movements of the troops he travelled with. Both books take the US to task for fouling up the aftermath of the invasion, but where Garrels’ concerns seem to arise from her daily interactions with Iraqis, Atkinson’s epilogue seems hastily tacked on, an attempt to save the book from being made irrelevant by the nasty turn that this war has taken.RELATED: In October I met Anne Garrels, and I met Rick Atkinson in October 2003.