Travels in the Scriptorium

I enjoyed reading this book; it was a clever one. I guess I might have found it even cleverer if I read it back in 2006, when it was first published. It’s a self-referential story-within-the-story and probably because we’ve seen other examples of this kind, we get an idea of how it will come out in the first half.

The text recounts the 24 hours of an elderly man kept in a room. We only discover the details of his circumstances as he discovers them one at a time, and the medical treatment that he’s receiving makes it difficult for him to remember details and make deductions. He takes notes because he can’t rely on his memory – so we start making an effort at keeping details in mind. There are piles of old photos and manuscripts on his desk and several people visit him during day, one of them being his lawyer. The inside story is narrated in the manuscripts, followed by conversations with his guests. At page 113 I started to lose my interest in that story but there weren’t many pages to go after that point.

There are strong hints about the plot on page 107: “As Mr. Blank continues to study the ceiling, its whiteness gradually conjures up an image to him, and instead of looking at a ceiling he fancies that he is staring at a sheet of blank paper.” And at the very end, we are given the first paragraphs of the book as out protagonist reads them – so the text comes inside out.

What struck me about the narration was that the style was quite formal; the text called itself a “report,” like a prison report or something. That put me off slightly; I remembered an older gentleman from my PhD fieldwork who called Murakami’s After Dark “impersonal.” The book does remind you of After Dark, but they don’t belong to the same tradition of literature of course. Paul Auster has presumably written his novel with certain emotional detachment as part of the whole post-modernist trick.

tara0012The book has been translated into Turkish, and in order for the trick to work, certain things need to be called the same words. For example, the narrator calls the protagonist Mr. Blank, and his name in Turkish should also contain the adjective used to refer to a blank sheet of paper. Moreover, Mr Blank “travels” in his room on his wheeled chair, and that word has to be the same as the word in the title. Moreover, the book is peppered with purposefully ambiguous words such as “implicate,” (e.g. “Anna is also implicated”) or “charge” (e.g. “He was one of your charges”) and I’m wondering how Taciser Ulaş Belge handled them. Since characters aren’t really introduced but we are kept wondering about the relations between them, I thought whether Anna should address Mr Blank in the formal second person plural “you” or the familiar version, second person singular, in the opening pages of the book – that could say something about their relationship. Finally, there’s a 37-line sentence that reflects Mr Blank’s wandering mind; that must have given Ulaş Belge a hard time.

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