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THE BLACK BOOK: The Flâneur as Reader

Adrianna Gregory


Adrianna Gregory

The University of Georgia


The Flâneur as Reader:

Effects of Memory and Recognition in Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book


The flâneur, or wanderer, is a prominent figure in literature—perhaps most notably in Benjamin’s Arcades Project and Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal, which feature figures meandering through the city with no purpose except exploring it. Citing the relationship between literary flâneurs and the wanderer in Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book as evidence of Pamuk’s conscious attempt to connect literature and city exploration, this paper draws parallels between the process of reading a text and exploring a city. Ultimately, I argue that the experiences of reading and wandering are the same; this assertion leads to a meditation on the effects of memory and recognition as they apply to these processes.



Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book takes place within the maze-like city streets of Istanbul. Galip weaves through the streets of his familiar city, reflecting on his memories as he navigates. Wandering through an urban landscape activates readers’ associations with other literary works; in particular, Galip’s exploration of the city mirrors Benjamin’s idea of the flâneur in Arcades Project and Dostoevsky’s wandering Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment. These consistent references to Benjamin and Dostoevsky establish a relationship between the processes of reading literature and exploring a city. Galip’s wandering through the city becomes a powerful metaphor for the process of reading a text, in which personal memories and experiences dictate the way in which city streets are seen and interpreted, becoming an intensely personal experience directly related to the associations already existing in the reader’s mind. In the same way that first interpretations of a text—or first sightings of a new urban landmark—are colored by memory, the process of revisiting these landmarks and noticing changes mirrors the new understandings and discoveries that occur when rereading a text.

            When read in light of Dostoevsky’s descriptions of St. Petersburg, Pamuk’s flâneur begins to function not only as a medium for exploration of Istanbul, but also as a testament to a city’s power. The oppressive, maze-like St. Petersburg of Crime and Punishment forces Raskolnikov into small enclosures and narrow alleys; enveloped in stifling air, he is “hemmed and squeezed” through crowds and narrow streets towards Haymarket Square (Dostoevsky 145). Though he often begins walking by stepping decisively out onto the street or making a sharp turn, much of the movement through the streets that follows is “mechanical,” suggesting that he is guided not by his own free will, but instead by his familiarity with the crowded, stuffy city around him. Galip’s movements through the streets are similarly structured. He “[steps] decisively into the street” (Pamuk 228), takes in visions of passers-by, and walks through back streets towards Harbiye and Nişantaşı enclosed by a dark sky and “narrow pavements…thick with soot” (Pamuk 223) similar to the ones that confine Raskolnikov. This physical confinement manifests itself in the characters’ minds. In the same way St. Petersburg seems to constrict Raskolnikov in a thick blanket of haze, Celâl writes in his column “The Eye” about the “stifling and oppressive gaze” that lurks above him (Pamuk 114). The eye gazes over Celâl only on the city streets, which are dark, filthy, and enclosed--descriptions that again mirror those of Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg.

            St. Petersburg and Istanbul are quickly and clearly defined as cities with overwhelming power over their inhabitants. The streets and landmarks Raskolnikov knows by heart facilitate their automatic, mechanical wandering through the city. It is in these characters’ urban navigation that their resemblance to Benjamin’s flâneur begins to take shape. A collection of quotes and meditations on Parisian life, Arcades Project moves through the city by way of the solitary wanderer walking solely to experience the city. According to Benjamin, “the street [conducts the flâneur]…into a vanished time” (Benjamin 416) by pushing him through landmarks that activate his memories and old associations with the city. The way the streets push the flâneur into the past—both his own and the city’s--is echoed in The Black Book when Galip roams his old neighborhood and all of the city’s signs point to his childhood home. His legs “[do] not want to leave the City-of-Heart Apartments,” and he must “[use] all his strength to keep walking away from the building” (Pamuk 225). Istanbul exerts a noticeable, physical power over him, a force that draws strength from his memories and pushes him into his past. This is not unlike Celâl’s oppressive eye; the city is drenched in their past experiences and surrounds them in the gardens of their memory, where they can “[watch their] own thoughts” (Pamuk 116).

            Istanbul’s mysterious and oppressive power also exerts its influence over nameless city-dwellers. Galip notices the “millions of wretches [who] still wander like sleepwalkers through the city’s filthy streets” (Pamuk 159). Sleepwalkers, of course, are not conscious of their movement; these wanderers instead seem to operate under the mysterious, unseen force of Istanbul. Just as Raskolnikov’s mechanical wandering reveals his intuitive knowledge of the city streets, the sleepwalkers’ movement conjures an image of intuitive navigation. They do not need to be awake to wander with ease down the narrow streets; they are able to trust that the map is unchanged and that the landmarks are the same as they have always been. The city, then, is little more than a physical representation of their memories, a mental map they can wander in dreams. If memory lies within the subconscious, Istanbul’s sleepwalkers are testament to the wealth of individual memories stored within a single city; in their movement through the streets, they seem to lack physical control and are instead guided by that same unseen force—memory.

            This separation of physicality and consciousness also denies the sleepwalkers the ability to perceive change in their surroundings. Navigating by their own memories, their eyes are closed to the “true” city around them. Similarly, the shop windows, trodden pavements, and old buildings Galip encounters reveal to him the Istanbul of his memories. When he gazes at the City-of-Hearts apartment lights from the street, he feels “that his memories of [that] place stretched far beyond the eighteen years his family had been [there]” (Pamuk 27); he cannot look at the apartment building without remembering his family’s past. Benjamin reflects on this condition of the wanderer when he writes about the “anamnestic intoxication in which the flâneur goes about the city,” which “not only feeds on the sensory data taking shape before his eyes but often possesses itself of the abstract knowledge—indeed, of dead facts—as something experienced and lived through” (Benjamin 417). Indeed, Galip’s memories lead him to predict what will happen when he enters his family’s apartment “with the practiced impatience of a reader leafing through a book he’s already read too many times to count” (Pamuk 28). Like sleepwalkers roaming familiar streets, Galip is able to play out the scene that will take place in his apartment as definitively as drawing a map of his childhood neighborhood. His own memories cloud the reality of his surroundings and inhibit his perception of a new experience in the apartment. 

            Despite the power his memories hold over him, Galip’s desire to read new signs in the city as well as his ability to resist the pull of memory and walk away from the City-of-Hearts Apartments set him apart from the rest of the city’s sleepwalkers. This individuality works to establish him as the hero of a detective novel who has superior skill in finding and interpreting clues. In similar fashion, Raskolnikov is obsessed with Nietzsche’s Übermensch theory, which makes the distinction between ordinary and extraordinary men. This idea forms the basis of Raskolnikov’s separation from and disdain for the crowds of St. Petersburg; the divide energizes the city scenes in which Raskolnikov pushes his way through congested marketplaces. Galip does not use his individuality to justify crime, but Pamuk’s stylistic imitation of Dostoevsky’s descriptions in the passages in which Galip weaves through a crowded Taksim Square reinforces Galip’s separation from the masses, implying solidarity with Raskolnikov’s Nietzchean theories. This separation bestows upon him a kind of superior ability to read and interpret different signs; it establishes his unique power to solve the city’s mystery.

            Benjamin, too, writes that “performed in the figure of the flâneur is that of the detective” (Benjamin 440). Once Galip forms an individual identity, the text begins to function as a detective novel in which he is the hero. In this detective novel setting, Pamuk’s stylistic imitation of Dostoevsky transforms Galip’s aimless wandering into a calculated, methodical observation of Istanbul in which there are clues and “hidden meanings” to be discovered (Pamuk 262). For example, when he wanders through the city, his journey is broken up by the abrupt arrivals and departures at different landmarks; he “[crosses] the Unkapani Bridge” (Pamuk 119), [heads] out of the market” (Pamuk 216), and purposefully “[turns] left” onto Teşvikiye Avenue (Pamuk 224). The definite separation of these streets fragments the city, suggesting that each is a separate piece of a puzzle which must be arranged and interpreted. The detective will travel down these different streets as a reader travels down various avenues of thought when reading a text, pushed in different directions by his curiosity. 

            This exploration is further linked to literature in its analysis of other detective fiction. For example, while Pamuk’s text itself functions as a detective story, Galip also admires the way in which the structure of Celâl’s column on Rumi “followed the stages of a police investigation” (Pamuk 261); both of these structures equate literature with mystery. The fact that Celâl’s column was also written about literature confirms Pamuk’s metaphor, and implicit in the passage is the suggestion that reading Rumi’s text would also be detective work and that the signs would multiply ad infinitum. This fluid motion of eyes over a page—or the marks from a green ballpoint pen in the margins—is a clear reflection of a wanderer’s footsteps on city streets, his systematic exploration through the maze of possible interpretations. Walking up and down the same street multiple times then mirrors the close rereading of a text and is part of the process of solving a mystery in which each clue holds a hidden truth.

            The process of walking also links to reading and writing journalism, which, unsurprisingly, is inherently reliant on urban exploration. In Celâl’s column, “The Three Musketeers,” he tells the journalists that, though he can’t read French, every evening he “[picks] up a dictionary to unravel Les fleurs du mal” (Pamuk 85). While the language of this confession—namely, the word “unravel”—again suggests mystery in the city and meanings to be deciphered, the simple fact that Celâl reads Baudelaire every night builds the foundation for his relationship with the city, which is charged with memories and vulnerable to change. Benjamin acknowledges this relationship between flâneur and journalist when he says “the literary man[1] ventures into the marketplace to sell himself” (Benjamin 446). This again enforces the relationship between urban life and journalism; without the city, the literary man has nothing to write about and no one to whom he can provide news—at least not on such a grand scale. The writer and the city thus have an intimate relationship; Galip intuits that Celâl could not have left the city because “he could not write anywhere else” (Pamuk 220). The importance of the central marketplace does not lie in economic exchange; its crowded squares are more than just a hub for selling newsprint. The marketplace is the heart of the city, the central garden in which all the memories are stored. In these marketplaces, the “true” picture of the city is easily swallowed by the distractions of the crowds, but it is to these hubs that the flâneurs repeatedly return. Despite his attempts to separate himself from the ordinary masses, Raskolnikov constantly wanders mechanically towards the bustling Haymarket Square, and Galip is frequently drawn to Taksim and Nişantaşı Squares. Perhaps it is to this wealth of memory and hidden meaning in this mysterious heart that Galip always returns. 

            Galip’s search for the hidden meaning within the city again separates him from the mass of sleepwalkers who are content to read the same meanings in the familiar landmarks. Because the city is the heart of the mystery, the landmarks within it function as clues which must be interpreted. Though Galip at first reads the same memories in the city sights, he slowly transforms into someone capable of reading new meanings into the old signs. Galip’s transformation is not unlike the process of reading a text, in which single clues can give rise to multiple interpretations. Barthes might argue that the flâneur’s associations with buildings, corners, and the faces of passers-by should be transformed in his repeated encounters with them. However, the sleepwalkers’ familiarity with the landmarks is actually what inhibits them from forming new impressions of them, and it is not Galip’s repetitive wandering that exposes new meanings. In fact, it is the opposite: Galip’s revelations stem not from memory, but from forgetfulness.

            It is only when Galip feels the powerful desire to shed his skin and become someone else that the landmarks of his memories are transformed in his mind. Raskolnikov has a similar desire—oftentimes he longs to “forget himself” and begin life anew (Dostoevsky 43). To forget would be to be rid himself of the torment his memory brings. He is unable to walk city streets without panicking over betraying his crime, just as Galip at first cannot walk through the city’s reminders of Rüya, his absent wife, without inner turmoil. The only way to forget is to transform; it is only when Galip becomes Celâl that the city finally loses its old associations. When he arrives at the crossroads in Nişantaşı, the “apartment fronts and shop windows and bank panels and neon letters [seem] new, transformed,” despite the fact that he had seen them “ten thousand times before” (Pamuk 224)[2]. He walks back and forth up Teşvikiye Avenue and notices small details in his surroundings—a switchblade in Alâaddin’s shop window, an incorrect street sign—that lead him to discover new meanings in the old city. It is only his personal transformation that allows him to walk up and down the same streets with new perspective. As Galip transforms, even Celâl’s columns reveal new meanings to him. The transformation of Celâl’s columns is the best indication of this passage’s continuing implications for the process of reading, suggesting that the illumination of signifiers within a work is attributed to personal identity and memory rather than repeated exposure.

            Galip is not the only example of transformation; this problem of identity can easily be applied to all of Turkey, which in its transformation to the Turkish Republic struggled to maintain a cultural identity in the face of modernization. As Turkey underwent political change, its language experienced a similar transformation. The shift to the Roman alphabet intensifies Pamuk’s metaphoric use of Istanbul as a text; the change suggests that the city will be completely foreign and unrecognizable after the modernization. The signs of the city written in an old alphabet become nothing more than links to the past, and as time goes on, people will forget the old language, and it will become impossible to read the ancient signs.

           Just as it is difficult to use a new alphabet when the sounds of a language are preserved in the old, cultural preservation inhibits modernization. This is the problem the flâneur faces; perceiving a city separate from his memories within it is impossible, and the literary wanderer cannot read new meanings while attempting to preserve the integrity of the old meanings. Likewise, this is where Galip distinguishes himself from Benjamin’s flâneur, whose interpretation of the city is more immediate, a glimpse of the surroundings less influenced by memories from the past. Benjamin’s flâneur might be more open to the changes that take place within a city over time, but changes in Pamuk’s Istanbul hint at the darker side of modernization, as there is a sense of melancholy attached to the destruction of memory it causes. Galip’s story implies that it is impossible to achieve heightened consciousness—that sudden surge of new life which transforms—without sacrificing memory. After his transformation, he longs to forget his new interpretations, to read the old meanings back into the pavement (Pamuk 225). These passages evoke the melancholy of Baudelaire’s lament over his lost Paris—the passer-by, the old architecture, the spirit of the city he loved—in Fleurs du mal

            The problem of Turkey’s changing national identity in the novel also suggests that Istanbul, the physical manifestation of the nation’s collective memory, is doomed to a slow decay. If the city still functions as a text, then literary interpretation becomes almost inseparable from personal identity and memory. When transformation occurs and memory deteriorates, the old meanings are impossible to retrieve; however, while this new life creates a feeling of emptiness, it also offers redemption. When Raskolnikov admits to murder—that is, betrays his identity—he finds salvation in a “new life” in Siberia, an environment which provides him a more “direct and simple” life than the memory-laden streets of St. Petersburg did (Dostoevsky 457). Raskolnikov’s forgetfulness suggests hope for creating a new identity. Though the first interpretations of a text may disappear, there is hope that the ones that follow will shed new light on it, will give the text a “new life.”

            These reflections on memory are best represented in “The Story of the Crown Prince,” a tale within The Black Book in which a young prince deals with the interpretation of stories as it relates to his own identity. He “wage[s] war against any objects that influenced him the way books did….” because they had a way of “catching his eye and thus distracting him from the thoughts that might lead him to become himself” (Pamuk 427). These objects, replete with memories, sent him into mental states associated with those old thoughts and ideas, just as St. Petersburg pushed Raskolnikov into his feverish anxiety and Istanbul haunted Galip with memories of Rüya. This kind of personal identity is of paramount importance to the crown prince; he reflects that a kingdom’s failure to be itself will cause it to “[vanish] into nothingness” (Pamuk 434). While Istanbul’s sleepwalkers aim to preserve culture, it is questionable whether their wandering is actually just a distraction from the reality of Turkey’s inevitable change or the preservation of its true identity.

            As Galip walks quickly through the maze-like city, he “[stops] abruptly” in front of the Alif Bookstore. He literally reads the sign which spells out, in Roman letters, the “source of the alphabet” which everyone has forgotten how to pronounce (Pamuk 340). The letter is spelled out in the Roman alphabet, which strikes Galip—spelling it out in such a way combines two old and new alphabets, joining the ideas of modernization and preservation. The bookstore, though he had passed it a million times before, suddenly seemed “like an omen” to Galip—the Latin spelling is evidence of the change that is about to grip Turkey, and the notion of forgetting implicit in the history of alif (the Arabic equivalent of “A”) further suggests the decay of Istanbul that awaits. Just as the interpretation of a text without memory does not exist, this symbol of forgetfulness stops Galip’s wandering, if just for a moment. This “forgotten” letter does not reference another literary work; in its emptiness there is, at least, the suggestion that its identity is its own. As the starting point for written language, the letter symbolizes the beginning of a new text and a transition into a new Turkish identity; in Galip’s recognition of the new letter there is, perhaps, the suggestion that he is the beginning of the new text, that he may in fact have become the writer of his own text.



Works Cited


Baudelaire, Charles, and James McGowan. The Flowers of Evil. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993. Print.


Benjamin, Walter, and Rolf Tiedemann. "The Flaneur." The Arcades Project. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1999. Print.


Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. New York: W.W. Norton, 1964. Print.


Pamuk, Orhan, and Maureen Freely. The Black Book. New York: Vintage International/Vintage, 2006. Print.


[1] Of course, Raskolnikov is also one of these “literary men”—his article on Übermensch is published in the Periodical Review.

[2] The fact that this major transformation occurs at a crossroads is unsurprising. In Slavic folklore, crossroads are a portal to the spirit world, and because of this association with the spirits, all major events take place there. It is where men make deals with demons, bury suspected vampires, and stop ceremoniously during funeral processions. Of course, the marketplace also functions as a crossroads, which further explains Raskolnikov’s and Galip’s tendency to wander there.




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