BLACK BOOK by Orhan Pamuk
THE DAY THE BOSPHORUS DRIES UP
Nothing can be as astounding as life — except writing.
Are you aware that the Bosphorus is regressing? I doubt that you are. These days, when we’re so busy murdering each other with the insouciant boisterousness of children on a lark, which one amongst us reads anything informative about the world? We give even our columnists half-hearted readings as we elbow each other on ferryboat landings, fall into each other’s laps on bus platforms, or as we sit in dolmuses where the newsprint shivers uncontrollably. I got wind of the news, in a French geological journal.
The Black Sea is warming up, it turns out, as the Mediterranean cools down. That’s why seawater has begun to flood into the immense caves that gape open on the ocean floor and, as a result of similar tectonic movements, the basins of the Gibraltar, the Dardanelles, and the Bosphorus are rising. A fisherman we last interviewed on the shores of the Bosphorus, after describing how his boat went aground in the same deep waters where he once set anchor, put to us this question: Does our prime minister give a damn?
I don’t know. All I know is the implications of this fast developing situation for the near future. Obviously, a short time from now, the paradise we call the Bosphorus will turn into a pitch-black swamp in which the mudcaked skeletons of galleon will gleam like the luminous teeth of ghosts. It isn’t hard to imagine that this swamp, after a hot summer, will dry up in places and turn mucky like the bed of a modest stream that irrigates a small town, or even that the slopes of the basin fed abundantly by gurgling sewage that flows through thousands of huge tiles will go to daisies and weeds. A new life will begin in this deep and wild valley in which the Tower of Leander will jut out like an actual and terrifying tower on the rock where it stands.
I am talking about new districts which will be built, under the noses of the municipal cops rushing about with citation books in their hands, on the mire of the lacuna once called “The Bosphorus”: about shantytowns, stalls, bars, cabarets, pleasure palaces, amusement parks with merry-go-rounds, casinos, about mosques, dervish tekkes and nests of Marxist factions, about fly-by-night plastics workshops and sweatshops that manufacture nylon stockings. Observed in the midst of the apocalyptic chaos will be carcasses of ships that remain from the old Municipal Goodworks Lines listing on their sides, and fields of jellyfish and soda-pop caps. On the last day when the waters suddenly recede, among the American transatlantics gone to ground and Ionic columns covered with seaweed, there will be Celtic and Ligurian skeletons open-mouthed in supplication to gods whose identities are no longer known. Amidst mussel-encrusted Byzantine treasures, forks and knives made of silver and tin, thousand-year-old barrels of wine, soda-pop bottles, carcasses of pointy-prowled galleys, I can image a civilization whose energy needs for their antiquated stoves and lights will be derived from a dilapidated Romanian tanker propelled into a mire-pit. But what we must prepare ourselves for in this accursed pit fed by the waterfalls of all of Istanbul’s green sewage is a new kind of plague that will break out thanks to hordes of rats who will have discovered a paradise among the gurgling prehistoric underground gases, dried-up bogs, the carcasses of dolphins, the turbot, and the swordfish. Be forewarned about what I know: the catastrophes that happen in this pestilent place quarantined behind barbed wire will affect us all.
On the balconies where we once watched the moonlight that made the silken waters of the Bosphorus shimmer like silver, we will henceforth watch the glow of the bluish smoke of burning corpses which could not get buried. Sitting at the tables where we once drank raki, breathing the overpowering cool of the flowering Judas trees and the honeysuckle bushes that grow on the shores of the Bosphorus, we will taste the acrid and moldy smell of rotting corpses burning in our gullets. No longer shall we hear the songs of the spring birds and the fast flowing waters of the Bosphorus where fishermen line up on the wharves; now it will be the screams of those who, fearing death, go at each other with the swords, knives, rusty scimitars, handguns, and shotguns that they’ve got hold of, weapons dumped into the water to frustrate a thousand years of unwarranted searches and seizures. Natives of Istanbul who live in boroughs that were once by the seaside will no longer open their bus windows wide to breathe in the smell of seaweed as they return home dog weary; on the contrary, to prevent the smell of mud and rotten corpses from seeping in, they’ll be stuffing rags and newspapers around the municipal bus windows through which they watch the horrible darkness below that is lit by flames. At the seaside cafés where we get together along with vendors of balloons and wafer helva, henceforth we will not be watching naval illuminations but the blood-red glimmer of naval mines blowing up in the hands of curious children. Beachcombers who earn their livelihood collecting tin cans and Byzantine coins that stormy seas belch up on the sand will now have to pick up coffee grinders that floods once pulled out of wooden houses along the boroughs on the waterfront and dumped in the depths of the Bosphorus, cuckoo clocks in which the cuckoos are covered with moss, and black pianos encrusted with mussels. And that’s when one day, I shall sneak through the barbed wire into this new hell in order to locate a certain Black Cadillac.
The Black Cadillac was the trophy car of a Beyoglu hood (I can’t bring myself to call him a “gangster”) whose adventures I followed thirty years ago when I was a cub reporter, and who was the patron of the den of iniquity in the foyer of which were the two paintings of Istanbul I greatly admired. There were only two other cars just like it in Istanbul, one belonged to Dagdelen of the railroad fortune and the other to the tobacco king, Maruf. Our hood (who was made into a legend by us newsmen, and the story of whose last hours we serialized for an entire week), having been cornered by the police at midnight, drove the Cadillac and his moll into the dark waters of the Bosphorus at Undertow Point because, according to some, he was high on hash, or else he did it on purpose like a desperado riding his horse over a precipice. I can already figure out the location of the Black Cadillac which the divers couldn’t find despite the search that went on for a week, and which the papers and the readers soon forgot.
It should be there, in the deepest part of the new valley once called the Bosphorus, below a muddy precipice marked by seven-hundred-year-old shoes and boots, their pairs missing, in which crabs have made their nests, and camel bones, and bottles containing love letters written to unknown lovers; back behind slopes covered with forests of sponge and mussels among which gleam diamonds, earrings, soda-pop caps, and golden bracelets; a hide way past the heroin lab quickly installed in the dead hull of a boat, beyond the sandbar where oysters and whelks are fed by pails and pails of blood from nags and asses that have been ground into contraband sausages.
As I search for the car in the stillness of this noxious darkness, listening to the horns of the cars that go by on what used to be called the Shoreway but which is now more like a mountain road, I shall meet up with palace intriguers who are still doubled up in the sacks within which they were drowned, the skeletons of Orthodox priests still hanging onto their crosses and staffs and wearing balls and chains on their ankles. When I see the bluish smoke that comes out of the periscope being used as a stovepipe on the British submarine (which was supposed to torpedo the SS Gulcemal carrying our troops from Tophane harbor to the Dardanelles, but instead itself sank to the bottom, diving into moss-covered rocks, its propeller tangled in some fishing nets), I shall understand that it’s our citizens now who are comfortable in their new home (built in the shipyards of Liverpool), drinking their evening tea out of China cups, sitting in the velvet officer’s chairs once occupied by bleached English skeletons gulping for air. In the gloaming, a little way off, there will be the rusty anchor of a battleship that belonged to Kaiser Wilhelm, and a pearlized television screen will wink at me. I shall observe the remnants of a looted Genoan treasure, a short-barreled cannon stuffed with mud, the idols and images of fallen and forgotten states and peoples, a brass chandelier with blown-out bulbs standing on its tip. Descending further down, sloughing through the mire and rocks, I shall see the skeletons of galley-slaves sitting patiently chained at their oars as they observe the stars. Maybe I won’t pay enough attention to the necklaces, the eyeglasses, and the umbrellas that droop from trees of seaweed, but for a moment I shall look assiduously and fearfully at the Crusader knights mounted with all their arms, armor, and equipment on magnificent skeletons of horses that are still stubbornly standing. And I shall register with fear that the barnacle-covered skeletons of the Crusaders, replete with their emblems and their armament, are guarding the Black Cadillac.
Slowly and cautiously, as if asking for the Crusaders’ permission, I shall respectfully approach the Black Cadillac, barely lit from time to time by a phosphorescent light the source of which is not distinguishable. I shall try the handles on the doors of the Cadillac but the vehicle, covered entirely with mussels and sea urchins, won’t permit me entrance; the greenish windows will be too stuck to move. That’s when, taking my ballpoint pen out of my pocket, using the butt end, I shall slowly scrape off the pistachio green layer of moss that covers one of the windows.
At midnight, when I strike a match in this horrific and spellbinding darkness, I shall observe the embracing skeletons of the hood and his moll kissing in the front seat, her braceleted slim arms and ringed fingers around his, in the metallic light of the gorgeous steering wheel that still shines like the Crusaders’ armor, and the meters, dials, and clocks dripping with chrome. Not only will their jaws be clasped together, their skulls, too, will have welded together in an eternal kiss.
Then, not striking another match, as I turn back toward the city lights, thinking that this is the best possible way to meet death at the moment of disaster, I will call out in pain to an absent lover: My soul, my beauty, my dolorous one, the day of disaster is at hand, come to me no matter where you are, mayhap in an office thick with cigarette smoke, or in the onion-scented kitchen of a house redolent with the smell of laundry, or in a messy blue bedroom, no matter where you are, it’s time, come to me; now is the time for us to wait for death, embracing each other with all our might in the stillness of a dark room where the curtains are closed, hoping to lose sight of the awesome catastrophe that is fast approaching.
from THE BLACK BOOK
Kara Kitap (1994 – first edition 1990). Istanbul: Iletisim Yayinlari, pp. 23-27.
translated by Güneli Gün