"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

November 7, 2012

"My Name is Red" (1998) by Orhan Pamuk (Book Review)

The Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, who was in 2006 granted the Nobel Prize in Literature, was born into a wealthy, upper-class Istanbul family. He was originally interested in architecture and painting, but changed course during his studies and after graduating from the Institute of Journalism, became a professional writer. His first novel, a traditional family saga in the style of Buddenbrooks, was published in 1982. From his third novel (The White Castle) on, his work has been translated in English and many other languages. From that time on, his books also became more adventurous with a definite post-modern quality. My Name is Red was his sixth novel, published in Turkey in 1998 and a few years later appearing in a prize-winning English translation.

[Photo Wikipedia]

The interesting thing about Pamuk is that all his novels are different in style and intent. My name is Red is a historical thriller in the style of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, and also has echoes of Borges. The postmodern quality can for example be found in the way each chapter is narrated in an alternating voice. There are even occasional unexpected voices as a coin and the color red, while the first chapter is told by a man who has just been murdered and dumped into a well.

Most of the recurring voices are those of Black, a former miniaturist who has returned to Istanbul from 12 years absence in Persia and in the story functions as amateur detective; Enishte Effendi, uncle of Black, in charge of the creation of a secret book for the Sultan in the Venetian style, who will become the second murder victim; Shekure, Enishte's beautiful daughter but also a (probable) widow with two young sons, with whom Black is in love and who later becomes his wife; Master Osman, the head of the Sultan's workshop of miniaturists; three miniaturists called Stork, Elegant and Olive; Esther, a Jewish peddler and matchmaker; etc.

The book contains a murder mystery and a love story, but is above all a philosophical and historical novel about art and reality, and the cultural division between Islam and Western thought. This division is made tangible in the theme of painting. Islam originally forbids figurative representation, but in Persia in the Middle Ages the art of book illustration by decorating the margins of the pages with abstract representations, gradually led to a miniature figurative art. This art, however, was very different from European painting, as for example practiced in Venice: the miniaturists did not observe perspective and other rules basic to Western art, but made idealized pictures where hierarchy was taken into account (the sultan was drawn in the center and extra large, a human figure could not be taller than a mosque etc.); moreover, as in other non-Western pre-modern societies, human figures were not drawn as individuals, but as generalized, unrecognizable persons. In the novel, we meet the miniaturists who were making this type of illustrations at the court of the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul, just at the juncture that some wanted to go in the individualistic direction of European painting, while on the other hand fundamentalists were clamoring to stop all figurative expression. The last group won. In this way the novel also symbolically reflects modern societal tensions in Turkey.

[Illustration from the Persian "Shahnameh" (Book of Kings, 1430). Photo Wikipedia]

This piece of art history, lovingly and in great detail presented by Pamuk, was also new to Turkish readers, for modern Turkey has largely cut away its historical, Ottoman roots. Even more so for Western readers, it is a lot of new information (with the names of numerous miniaturists, sultans and famous illustrated books), making the pace of the novel a bit slow at times, but I wouldn't want to be without it - the cultural comparison is indeed compelling.

The clash of ideas leads to murder and mayhem in the novel, until the mystery is solved by Black, with the help of his wife Shekure. The characterization of Shekure as a very elusive and enigmatic woman is finely done by Pamuk. And the "end good, all good" ending is turned on its post-modern head by having in the last paragraph Shekure ask her son Orhan (!) write down the story we have just read, "although she knows that for a delightful story, there isn't a lie he wouldn't deign to tell..."

[Photo Wikipedia]

My evaluation: 9 points out of 10.

Comprehensive Orhan Pamuk website.