Authorial Identity in Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book (1990) as Mise-en-Abyme

14 Mar 2013



This study contributes to the arguments of mise-en-abyme and meta-narratives in literature on the issue of production of a text, story, novel or the act of writing itself. The research question is how the characters, in Orhan Pamuk’s postmodern fiction The Black Book (1990), being references to each other, reproduce the mise-en-abyme structure of the novel. Characters are not mirror reflections but they are the copies of non-existing originals. The various meanings of the novel lay in the authorship challenge on a meta-level since the fiction reader becomes the fiction author. Transformation of identities within infinite mirror reflections will be dealt through the post-structuralist frames of Jean Baudrillard’s simulacrum and Roland Barthes’ concept of “death of the author” in connection to Lucien Dällenbach’s explanation on the technique of mise-en-abyme.


Keywords: authorship, meta-narrative, mise-en-abyme, Orhan Pamuk, simulacrum, post-structuralism



Literary critics have been trying to define the structure of mise-en-abyme for more than a century. It is more difficult to comprehend the tricks the author plays in a text with this form unlike the visual practice of the same technique in paintings, drawings and photography. To apply the mise-en-abyme effect in these creative fields, the artist needs to replicate the image resembling the greater whole. However, in the production of a text, the author has to find other means to hint the reader that there is a trap in the text, through the text itself. The act of writing is the main idea of mise-en-abyme in literary works. Narration is the core idea of the story told. Authorship is the focus here because the author is the one creating a fiction author in the text and makes him write other texts. Then the outcome turns out to be a book inside a book. By fictionalizing an author, the real author eventually reflects the act of his own writing. When a fiction reader in the novel takes on the role of the fiction author, mise-en-abyme effect is doubled. Playing tricks with authorial identity in Orhan Pamuk’s postmodern fiction The Black Book (1990) as a means of mise-en-abyme is the subject of concentration in this paper. From the post-structuralist point of view, the imperfectness of fiction elements makes the mise-en-abyme a true one.


Berna Moran, a prominent Turkish literary critic, recognizes The Black Book as meta-fiction in his A Critical Approach to the Turkish Novel series. He states that the subject of this novel is the act of narrating itself as a characteristic of postmodern tradition. This act of narration is questioned through critical literary concepts of fiction and reality, copy and the original, simulacrum and authenticity, intertextuality and the agency of the reader. In the post-structuralist approach to literature, fiction is a game played in its own space of textuality.


The question to be answered is how do the characters being references to each other reflect the structure of the novel as mise-en-abyme? They are references to each other because Galip, the protagonist, becomes Celâl, his famous newspaper columnist cousin, but this is complicated. The reader is confused at the end of the book trying to figure out if Celâl had really existed at the beginning. Or in other words, the question of who Celâl really is hangs in the air. This deception in the identity of the protagonist is important because it is directly related to authorship, be it fictional here, and textuality. If the original author Celâl was non-existing, then Galip copying Celâl’s identity and becoming him can be best explained through the snake eating its tail imagery, or a paradox, or an imperfect mise-en-abyme effect through a strange loop, which makes it indeed perfect (McHale 127). This is the challenge of authorship issue that shapes the mise-en-abyme in the novel.


On The Black Book


The Black Book became renowned in the postmodern literary genre in the beginning of 1990s. This is a detective story in the form of a coming-of-age novel, particularly focused on becoming an author. The organization of the novel follows the pattern of first telling the main story in one chapter and then a random creative newspaper article in the next. In the main story, Galip, a lawyer, is in search of his lost wife Rüya, who is also his first cousin. He suspects her to be hiding in her half brother Celâl’s apartment. Below is a practical family tree illustrating the relations between Galip, Rüya and Celâl (see Figure 1). Galip is a fan of Celâl and, just like Rüya, Celâl is lost in Istanbul and is nowhere to be found.


Figure 1. Galip’s family tree


The name of Galip’s wife, Rüya, means “dream” in Turkish, the original language of the novel, and her escape from Galip to Celâl can symbolically be related to the matter of Galip’s ideal of writing being possessed by Celâl. Through the second half of the novel, Galip intentionally learns to see the world from Celâl’s point of view because somebody has to continue writing the newspaper column in Celâl’s name with his style. Galip takes Celâl’s identity and begins writing the articles that are present at the very beginning of the novel. A reader becoming an author and writing one third of the novel the real reader holds in his/her hand maintains the mise-en-abyme effect of The Black Book through impersonation.


Theoretical Frameworks


In his 1977 “Le récit spéculaire: essai sur la mise en abyme”, Lucien Dällenbach defines mise-en-abyme as, “a means by which the work turns back on itself, appears to be a kind of reflexion” (8). Then he refers to Andre Gidé’s definition of the term: it is “any aspect enclosed within a work that shows a similarity with the work that contains it” (8). Orhan Pamuk obviously reaches the mise-en-abyme effect in his novel by playing with the idea of transforming Galip’s identity to that of fiction author Celâl’s.

This outcome can also be taken as an example of a strange loop defined as a form of Chinese boxes in the postmodernist fiction tricks. A differentiation between the tactics of Chinese boxes, or Russian babushka dolls, and mise-en-abyme needs to be made here according to Galip-Celâl transformation. Even though both tactics disrupt and complicate the ground of subsistence of the fiction work by reproducing the arrangement of relationships and deconstructing the process of building this ground (McHale 112), there are basic elements that cause Chinese boxes and mise-en-abyme to be dissimilar. Chinese boxes are the replicas of a certain object with varying sizes and they are separate than each other. In the Galip-Celâl transformation as an example of mise-en-abyme, Galip is not the exact replica of Celâl but he becomes him, which means that he had always been a part of the greater whole of Celâl’s character. It is not necessary to deal with whether the size of the character changes or not because Galip transforms into another personality rather than into a body. This personality is the concept of claiming the mind and experience of authorship of a number of newspaper articles rather than claiming the body of a middle-aged man.


Celâl’s occupation of being a writer coincides with the act of producing The Black Book. The chapters supposedly written by him set up one third of the novel. By the transformation of a reader into the author, a strange loop takes place at the end of the story. Hofstadter outlines the strange loop as a phenomenon which “occurs whenever, by moving upwards (or downwards) through the levels of some hierarchical system, we unexpectedly find ourselves right back where we started” (Hofstadter, qtd. in McHale 119). At this point, the reader questions the limits of the text in relation to mise-en-abyme within meta-levels. One may even dream of becoming the real author, Orhan Pamuk himself (just like the writer of this paper had done! And yet, that reader once became the author of this current text now. This is another self-reflexive experience if we are to continue playing the mise-en-abyme game). A paradox of an incommensurable state of being occurs in fiction. Ontological queries rise at another narrative level, or the “intertextual space where the materials of other texts are brought into a new relation” although these may overwhelm the mise-en-abyme structure (McHale 119-126). On the other hand, this strategy in fiction increases the perceptive skills of the reader and makes him/her more engaged with the text. In order to grasp the idea of mise-en-abyme, one has to go back and forth pages, digest the material and add the newer information on top of the old one while deconstructing it. Since the text is folded in itself, reading becomes a dynamic process as a form of mental gymnastics.


1. Jean Baudrillard – simulacrum (1981)


Orhan Pamuk applies the concept of copy of the copy, or simulacrum, into The Black Book by mixing the characters into each other and complicating the storyline. Although mise-en-abyme does not mean the exact reflection of a greater whole, yet related, probably the best illustration of Pamuk’s aim to make use of simulacrum is evident in one of the epigraphs: “The two together / The reflection and its reflection entered the mirror” (2006, 367) by Sheikh Galip, a renowned 18th century Ottoman poet.

From this perspective, one can associate the mysterious authorial identity to simulacrum and mise-en-abyme. Jean Baudrillard explains simulation as “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal” (1557). Pamuk’s construction of infinite copies of people in his novel fits into this description. An example is that all the couples in the novel resemble the relationship between Galip and Rüya. Alternatively, hyperreality makes the reader question the existence of these hypothetically original characters. They are not real but Galip meets them over and over again. If they are not real, how can this happen? It’s the trick of identities again which the reader can only decipher after finishing the story.

In The Precession of Simulacra, Baudrillard gives four phases of the image as follows:

  1. it is the reflection of a basic reality

  2. it masks and perverts a basic reality

  3. it masks the absence of a basic reality

  4. it bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum (1560)

These phases are effective in the development of simulacrum in The Black Book. Firstly, the basic reality is possessing Rüya (the inspiration to write in meta-fiction). The reflections of this basic reality are seen in the relationships of Galip and Rüya, Belkıs and her husband, and F. M. Üçüncü and his wife Emine. All the women in these relationships appear to have run away either to Celâl or to a copy of him. Secondly, Galip’s own identity masks and perverts this basic reality in a way that he pretends not to know who he really is and to whom his wife has run away. Within the abysmal strange loop Pamuk constructed, he masks his real identity – being Celâl – and perverts the whole course of the novel. Since there are endless clues about the identities of people involved in the story, the reader gets lost in the riddle and at some point mixes his or her own identity with the fiction reader or Rüya (since Rüya is also a fan of detective novels). In relation to the third phase of simulacrum, Pamuk articulates the style he fictionalizes when one of the elderly columnists unravels Celâl’s trick:


Style: Adorn your memories in pretentious language, adding clues that point to the void. Erudite ignorance: the man should pretend he cannot figure out the identity of the man who’s spirited off his wife. Paradox: Therefore the man who spirited off his wife is none other than himself. (102)


This is how Pamuk constructs as the masking and perverting of the basic reality. Thirdly, Galip masks the absence of the basic reality by creating the paradox of identities between him and Celâl. In The Empire Writes Back, Bill Ashcroft et al. define the “the central problematic of studies of writing [as] absence” of the writing body “unlike [in] spoken discourse” (185). This is an important fact on the meaning of the text to prove that the author does not necessarily exist in the interpretation of the text. Celâl can only exist through his texts but when they cannot be written anymore, since his authority disappears. Someone has to continue writing in his name. As the practice of the final phase, when Celâl and Rüya are taken as absent figures, the novel shows them to be unreal and thus, the whole fiction is an outcome of Galip’s imagination. Besides, Galip may be taken as his own copy, or his own pure simulacrum, in his own mind who is trying to find a meaning of existence. He may as well be fictionalizing himself. In Difference and Repetition, Gilles Deleuze describes simulacrum as, “decentre the identical, distort the similar and pervert the consequence” (301). His description is in line with Baudrillard’s fourth phase since the new reproduction of the basic reality is something different than the original.


Pamuk takes the concept of simulacrum for granted and he applies it to a limited degree. Yet there is something he adds to the debate, which is the story writing aspect of the novel. If the meaning of mimesis is that art is all about representation of life and reality, Pamuk interprets the reality as writing. However, Akerson claims that Pamuk never says that “reality” is life and the “copy” is writing in his representation of the conflict between real-copy (64).


2. Roland Barthes – The Death of the Author (1967)


Another post-structuralist concept is Roland Barthes’s “death of the author” in dealing with the author being “another tool for the exploration of ontology” (McHale 202). This approach creates space for the reader to claim authority over the text. Rather than what the author aims to say, interpretation of the text becomes important. It is no more possible to identify who is writing the text; the concept of a writing body is lost. The myth of an all-powerful author is overthrown with the reader’s domination of the text. McHale refers to the obsession of postmodernist authors when he claims that they show “their mastery over the fictional world, their ontological superiority as authors” (210) despite giving up the illusion of fiction. Pamuk, on the other hand, does not sacrifice his story but he further complicates it by employing different methods to trick the reader to keep him or her reading.


When the authority held by the writer is shifted to the reader, interpretation is the source for the text to live on. Identity of a pre-existing author is either thrown away or the reader kills the author. Pamuk applies this concept in his novel and positions the reader as the author at the end through a strange loop. Nevertheless, this approach to Barthes’s concept does not go beyond than reproducing the same authorial authority since it only changes hands from one writer to the next. This is supposedly as much as Pamuk could imagine. He assumes another singular authority for the text rather than deconstructing the whole idea of authorship.


By transforming into the identity of Celâl, what Galip does, as a reader, is to claim authority over Rüya, the inspiration to write, through silencing Celâl. Keeping the simulacrum explanation in the previous section in mind, these two characters have absent originals. There are only clues about their existence but, as it always happens throughout the novel, these clues point to endless new lives and stories that contribute to the abysmal effect. This is how Rüya’s and Celâl’s absent realities become the truth in the novel and the clues pointing to their absences help Galip to simulate Celâl’s authorship. As if to prove this fact, he says, “I am both myself and someone else” (388). It can be put forward that the author oscillates from being present and absent in the story (McHale 202). Barthes’s expression describes the central change of identity theme: “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author” (1326). The inexistence of the absent original characters can be interpreted as dead because Rüya and Celâl’s deaths are confirmed at the end of the novel. Pamuk seems to intentionally fictionalize Barthes’s description when a random reader of Celâl murders them. This could be the real reader since s/he also has read these articles.


The final chapter of The Black Book is entitled “But I Who Write” refers to Galip as if he is the one who has created the whole story, not Orhan Pamuk. In the postmodern style of worlds being under erasure, McHale discusses the sense of a (non-)ending. He separates open and closed ending as well as multiple and circular endings (109). The case of The Black Book is a model for an open circular ending because of Galip-Celâl transformation. The shift of subjects in the last sentences is noteworthy of paying attention. The speaking persona differs within seconds. Mise-en-abyme changes the ontological character of the text. Through mise-en-abyme the frame is redefined for a certain moment, causing an abyss to form. The narrator is hard to decipher from the writing body. It is not clear if Pamuk or Galip ends the novel by saying,




Toward morning, beset by painful memories of Rüya, Galip rises from his desk and looks out over Istanbul’s dark streets. Beset by painful memories of Rüya, I rise from my desk and look down on the dark streets of Istanbul. Together we think of Rüya and look out onto the dark streets of Istanbul; together we go to bed to drift between sleep and wakefulness, and whenever I see some sign of Rüya on the blue-checked quilt, we are both plunged into misery and surprised back to life. Because nothing is as surprising as life. Except for writing. Except for writing. Yes, of course, except for writing, the only consolation. (461)


In each sentence, the reader’s perception of reality falls apart. Time, space and beings get mixed up and this creates the abyss of the story. If the words in a text cherishes itself instead of the fiction told, what is left to the reader is to ask the following questions: Am I really reading? Was it Galip or Celâl that I have just read? How close was the representation of the author to the truth? From these overwhelmingly existential questions, it can be seen that the postmodern approach is to perpetually trick the reader to keep him/her reading the book. The trap of mise-en-abyme can only be recognized once the whole text is read. Only then the reader realizes s/he was tricked from the beginning while being warned about not to be tricked.


In relation to mise-en-abyme, it is as if Pamuk obeys this death of the author concept and leaves the space for his readers to interpret what is written in the novel. We as the readers take up the opportunity and keep the text living. Just like we do in reality, Galip reads every single piece written by Celâl, absorbs their meanings and also Celâl’s memory and begins to write instead of him. In Barthes’s words, “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination” (1325). Therefore the act of writing does not end when the author puts the pen down. It is recreated every time the text is read, reread and interpreted. This re-interpreted reality is reflected in the novel as an element of mise-en-abyme.




Even after finishing the story and thinking about connections to the mise-en-abyme structure, the reader may feel like the abyss engulfs the meaning because it is hard to relate Galip to Celâl every time another detail is re-explored. This situation implies that there can be instants when the essence of the story escapes the comprehension of the reader. The more the idea is evanescent, the truer the mise-en-abyme gets. Although the idea of authorship is challenged as a meta-ontological question in the process of mise-en-abyme, it is restored at the end to a single entity, be it a former reader in this case.




AKERSON, Fatma Erkman. “Kara Kitap Üstüne Bir Yorum Denemesi.” In Kara Kitap Üzerine Yazılar, ed. Nüket Esen. İstanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 2009.

ASHCROFT, Bill, Griffiths, G. and Tiffin, H. The Empire Writes Back. New York: Routledge, 1994.

BARTHES, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” In The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Vincent B. Leitch (general editor). New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010: 1322-26 (1968).

BAUDRILLARD, Jean. “From the Precession of Simulacra.” In The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Vincent B. Leitch (general editor). New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010: 1556-1566 (1981).

DALLENBACH, Lucien. The Mirror in theText. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989 (1977).     

DELEUZE, Gilles. Difference and Repetition. Trans Paul Patton. London: The Athlone Press, 1994 (1968).

MCHALE, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1987.

MORAN, Berna. “Üstkurmaca olarak Kara Kitap.” Türk Romanına Eleştirel Bir Bakış 3. İstanbul: İletişim, 1994.

PAMUK, Orhan. The Black Book. Trans Maureen Freely. New York: Vintage Books, 2006 (1990).

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