Early in the novel, a miniaturist named Olive says "Through our colors, paints, art and love, we remember that Allah had commanded us to "See"!". I found myself thinking about that line repeatedly later throughout this wonderful book.
First, be warned, this is not a quick read by any means. There is no omniscient narrative voice to smooth the path for the reader. Instead, the reader is presented with multiple voices and perspectives-- some from the characters themselves, some from the illustrations in the books, one memorable passage is even told from the point of view of ink itself.
And while there is a story and the story is important (the commissioning of the religiously dubious book by the Sultan, the subsequent murderer of Elegant Effendi, Black's efforts to find the killer, save the book and win the hand of his cousin Shekure), it is not as though the story were the book and it only orders the flow of the multiple perspectives rather than really making the reading of the book easier.
Pamuk has been much cited in the press lately, not only for his views as a novelist, but also for his views on what he calls the "absurd" conflict between east and west. Through using the medium of the narrow world of the miniaturists in the 16th century, Pamuk gently addresses the issue of heresy and pollution by stressing the continual influence of other cultures on the classical miniature form and by making clear through debates on individuality, blindness, and style where many of the differences between east and west are located. And also, of course, the similarities are revealed in the same manner.
I found _My Name Is Red_ to be by turns funny, thought-provoking and moving. I was never bored even though it took me perhaps three times as long to read as another book of similar length.
Some tips to the reader: read and even re-read the chronology at the back. Also, the publisher's web site for the book has some images of the paintings referred to by the characters. I found it useful to refer to them after I had finished the novel.
on September 4, 2002
Of Miniatures and Murder
One of these days, Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk will be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. As is usually the case with this prize, it will be given for all the wrong reasons: a Muslim may be needed that year or the clash of East and West may demand a winner who is from both cultures. That said, it will be an honour long overdue and richly deserved. For 20 years, Pamuk has been spinning his postmodern yarns in Istanbul and getting better with every book. In Turkey, he is a publishing sensation (after his latest book his publisher successfully sued a newspaper which refused to believe the sales figures) and his books have been translated into 20 languages. His latest effort My Name is Red is a magnificent historical mystery, which manages to be a thrilling page-turner as well as a dense novel of ideas.
The book is set in Istanbul in 1591. The Ottoman Empire is a major superpower, perhaps the most powerful in the world, and the sultan has commissioned a new book of paintings. These are not just any paintings. They are to be rendered in the 'new' Venetian manner, a style that flies in the face of all the rules of Islamic miniature art. The book is so secret that even the miniaturists working on it are unaware of the whole picture. Only Enishte Effendi, the official supervising the book, knows how all the pieces will fit. But rumours of heresy and blasphemy swirl around the project and an extremist preacher, incensed at the new western influences, is preaching murder.
When one of the miniaturists working on the book is killed, anyone could be the killer. Was he killed because he was committing heresy? Or because he had discovered heresy and was about to unmask the heretic? Enishte and his lovesick nephew 'Black Effendi' are racing to find the killer when another murder is committed. Meanwhile, there are other complications: Black Effendi is in love with Enishte's widowed daughter Shekure, who is also being pursued by her brother-in-law. She is flirting with both through a Jewess who carries her messages through the streets of Istanbul. And always in the background is the conflict between the self-contained and insular Islamic civilisation and the brash and uncomfortably individualistic new challengers from Europe.
The book is written in the form of 59 short chapters, each a monologue by one of the characters. Most of the chapters are narrated by the central characters - Black Effendi, Enishte, Shekure, the miniaturists and so on - but several are unconventional. The opening chapter is narrated by a freshly killed corpse, while others are narrated by the picture of a dog, a horse and even the colour red, from which comes the title of the book. The multiple perspectives work very well as a murder mystery - the narration by the killer, for example, invites the reader to guess at his identity through his style - and help Pamuk to push his complex cultural debate much better than any single perspective could have managed.
The amazing thing is that the book works at every level. As a murder mystery, it is thrilling and loaded with suspense, while as an allegory on the clash of cultures, it is masterful and subtle. Pamuk is far from being didactic or one-dimensional. The Ottoman world is indeed depicted as a despotic and insular culture, increasingly constrained and hampered by rigid and oppressive orthodoxies. But the orthodoxies have their own internal justifications and rationalisations. In a world where "the center will not hold and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world", these certainties do have an appeal. Pamuk is too much of a postmodern intellectual to actually embrace these ideologies but he is not above suspecting that in all this 'progress' something has also been lost. Not all the illusions are on Don Quixote's side, some are also on the side of those who jeer at him.
In 1999, the Turkish government tried to give Pamuk the title of state artist, which he refused by saying: "For years I have been criticizing the state for putting authors in jail, for only trying to solve the Kurdish problem by force, and for its narrow-minded nationalism, I don't know why they tried to give me the prize." After September 11, he wrote: "The western world is scarcely aware of this overwhelming humiliation experienced by most of the world's population, which they have to overcome without losing their common sense and without being seduced by terrorists, extreme nationalists or fundamentalists. Neither the magical realistic novels that endow poverty and foolishness with charm, nor the exoticism of popular travel literature manage to fathom this cursed private sphere."
Near the end of the book, one of the miniaturists offers what could be Pamuk's own credo: "An artist should never succumb to hubris of any kind, he should simply paint the way he sees fit rather than troubling over East or West." Pamuk spent five years writing My Name is Red, one must spend a few days reading it. It will not be a disappointing experience.
on February 24, 2002
Seldom do we find in literature a work with so many well-elaborated facets. This is the case with "My Name is Red," a novel which not only has a murder plot and a love story, but is also richly adorned with history, art, politics, while addressing deep philosophical/religious issues.
The novel has an architectural strucure made up of 59 chapters, each one representng the perspective of every character involved in the plot, besides inanimate objects (a corpse, a coin, the color red, death), figurative characters such as a dog, a horse, and Satan. The result is a cubistic outlook in which each piece has its own autonomy and at the same time remains dependent upon each other. Although "Black" is the main figure, none of the characters is fully developed; they serve as means to painstakingly and repeatedly address the central issues of the novel: the political allegories and the philosophy of art.
The plot evolves around the story of an art book requested by the Sultan (back in the 16th century) in order to glorify the life and deeds of the monarch. The miniaturists (Butterfly, Stork, Elegant, and Olive) commissioned to perform the paintings have to struggle between adherence to conservative techniques of a two-dimensional painting versus the introduction of the new western approach to art, using perspective (three-dimensional) and portraiture. This clash eventually brings a disruption of the old stability and results in the murder of two miniaturists.
The author is a progressive Muslim intellect who opposes the conflict between East and West (East and West being relative terms and as the Koran rightly states "To God belongs the East and West), and holds to the principle that "all good art comes from mixing things from different roots and cultures." Two cultures should not generate conflict but rather an amalgamation in which the values of each one are preserved and respected.
"My Name is Red" is an outstanding novel, exquisitely crafted, with intense monologues and dense passages, demanding close attention and persistency from the reader. A most gratifying experience which undoubtedly places Ohran Pamuk as one of the most gifted contemporary writers.
on January 8, 2002
There are plenty of books and TV shows on Islam, but they tend to be repetitive and factual, giving us the important dates and information over and over again. My Name Is Red takes up where all the non-fiction leaves off, bringing us into the very soul of Islamic thought as it is realized and articulated by a group of 16th century miniaturist painters who have been asked to construct an illustrated book not in traditional islamic style but in Venetian single-point perspective. Orhan Pamuk not only captures the world of 16th century Istanbul, but also is able to open an entire philosophy of art to Western readers. I was amazed by what I learned in the book, but was even more taken by Pamuk's skill as a novelist and stylist. Using a strange mix of first person vignettes that actually advance the story from one character to the next, Pamuk constructs a postmodern parable of his own yearnings. As if that weren't enough, Pamuk also kept me on the edge of my seat. (Did I mention My Name Is Red is also a murder mystery?) This book acted as my antidote for post 9-11 TV, bringing me face to face not only with Islam but, more importantly, with a brilliant and profound Muslim artist.
"My Name is Red" would be a fascinating novel in any era, but in this time of profound, and seemingly growing, disconnect between East and West, it is all the more compelling. By using the clash between traditional Islamic art and the budding realism of the Renaissance, Pamuk strives to shed light on the conflicted nature of Islam and traditional societies in general. In using the Ottoman Empire of the late 16th century as his setting, he sets the reader into a place and time where the Western world and the Islamic world were in conflict both intellectually and militarily, much as they are today.
This conflict operates on three levels. The first is the most obvious, and drives the story, which is a brilliantly conceived and diabolically executed murder mystery. The reader follows the trail of the murderer through the voices of a host of different characters, including the murderer himself, and some of the artwork he and his fellow artisans have created. As the novel progresses, the reader comes to realize that this murder has occurred because of a conflict between the traditional method of manuscript illumination and the method of using perspective to create lifelike images. What is unclear is whether the murder occurred to protect or overthrow tradition. The reason for this obscurity is that the killer himself seems uncertain as to the correctness of his actions and thus engages in a running internal moral debate. His internal conflict is in many ways a microcosm of the conflict in the era in which he lives.
The second conflict is found in the love story that underlies the mystery. As Black, one of the murder victim's nephew, pursues the killer, he is also pursuing his uncle's daughter, Shekure, who he has loved for most of his life. However, she is trapped, both by a tradition that leaves her bound to her husband, who presumably has died in battle, and by her uncertain feelings towards Black. Shekure is perhaps the most remarkable character in the book, as she struggles to make her own path in a society that has little tolerance for the needs or opinions of women. While not the core argument of the book, Pamuk makes a strong argument for how absurd it is to completely disenfranchise half of society for the sole reason that they happen to be female.
The final conflict is more subtle, but lies at the heart of the novel's message. It is a consideration of the results of cultures colliding and merging, and what happens when they are either unable or unwilling to adapt. Pamuk seems to suggest that Islam, while an inherently good religion, is far too rigid for its own good. By exploring the torment of artists who must choose between the traditional methods they have preserved for centuries, and the European method that is clearly the future, he parallels the crisis society as a whole faces when it fails to change. His characters feel compelled to make their choices based upon obscure religious dictates that have long since masked the true purpose of Islam's teaching: that God's creation is beautiful, and that man does Him honor by acknowledging it and living a good life.
In the end "My Name is Red" cuts to the heart of the conflict in which we find ourselves today. Islam, as a religion is deeply spiritual and has the potential to be a profound force for good. Unfortunately, Islam as a dogma has reverted to medieval forms that are completely incompatible with modern life. Pamuk uses the Ottoman Empire because it became rigid and collapsed, and it therefore serves as a cautionary tale to those who would attempt to stop time in its tracks. He has created a beautifully written, thoroughly researched and fiendishly clever mystery that also carries a message of profound importance. "My Name is Red" is a rare novel that is both entertaining and thought provoking, and I highly recommend it.
on May 29, 2004
This is a tough review to write. There's much to like about this book. There's much to dislike. Comparisons to Eco's "The Name of the Rose" are accurate; both books are period mysteries, both books explore the ideas of the time, both books aspire to larger stature than their genre. Neither book does, really. Literary fiction is all about character. Ultimately "My Name is Red" gives us intriguing and intricate philosophy and fascinating structure. But its characters are flat and its language tedious.
First, a quick note about the language. Does the translation stink? Or did Pamuk write convoluted, lifeless prose in the original? My guess the former. There are too many awkward sentences. The language is dull. I get the feeling the language is intended to represent a formal, fable-telling style. (More on this later.) But. It's too affected.
What really shines about "My Name is Red" is its fascinating story-within-a-story structure. The whole book is told as if by a coffee-house storyteller. Not only does the book unfold from multiple characters' points-of-view, but objects get voices, too - including a coin, Satan, and the color red.
Also the structure parallels the art form of book illustration that is at the heart of the novel. It's highly formal - all the narrators in the book speak with the same affected voice. It's traditional, in the spirit of "Arabian Nights," which uses parables and stories-within-stories. It owes much of its spirit to Islam, yet flirts with blasphemous rejection of religion. It's bending towards Western influences - in the case of the book, mystery novels. And so does illustration in the novel.
Yet for all the fascinating philosophical digressions and observations on Islam and art, what drives the modern novel is character. And it's there that "My Name is Red" is weakest. Perhaps because the language remains too formal throughout, we never get a chance to get intimate with the book's populace - their thoughts, the pattern of their speaking voices, the psychological impressions so vital to the 20th-century novel are missing here. There's also a weird obsession with sex running through the book - not in an interesting way, like in "Ulysses" - but in a middle-school, bodice-ripping way.
Still, the book is worth a read. It attempts to bring Middle East form and influence into a Western novel. The complexity of Pamuk's structure is awe-inspiring, certainly fascinating. Again, like "The Name of the Rose," it instructs as much as it entertains, even if it falls short of its artistic aspirations.
on January 14, 2003
The year is 1591. Sultan Murat III rules an empire that stretches from the Danube to the Nile, from the Barbary Coast of Algeria to the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates. As a patron of the arts, the Sultan commissions an illuminated manuscript that comes close to violating the Koran's ban on the depiction of living creatures.
At the Last Judgment, those who have depicted men and animals will be required by Allah to bring them to life. As they cannot but fail to usurp this function of the Creator, they are cast into hell for their mimicry of His divine powers.
The tight world of those few artists who are executing the Sultan's commission glance fearfully over their shoulders as a fundamentalist cleric, the Nusret Hoja of Erzurum, mounts an increasingly violent campaign against the "blasphemers" and "heretics." When the body of Elegant Effendi, the well-known gilder of manuscripts is found dead in a well, the artists decide to take action.
It is the second death, that of Enishte Effendi, that finally results in action. The miniaturist (as these artists are referred to throughout the book) known as Black is enlisted by Enishte's daughter Shekure to find the killer. Black had loved Shekure for many years unrequited, but with Enishte gone, Shekure promises to marry him if he succeeds.
In his novel THE BLACK BOOK, the author writes: "... the only way to be one's self is by becoming another or by losing one's way in another's tales." Orhan Pamuk in this novel tells his story through the mouths of twenty narrators, ranging from the main characters to the corpse of Elegant Effendi, the color red, a dog, a horse, Satan, Death, a tree, an unnamed woman, and so on. Where this technique could be expected to fragment the tale so that it becomes difficult to follow, here it succeeds brilliantly. The story passes from one narrator to the other almost seamlessly, and the trail is never lost.
One result of this technique is an incredible feeling of density and richness. Sixteenth century Istanbul is depicted here from its beggars to its coffee shops and wandering clothing merchants. From the Sultan's palace to an eerie abandoned dervish lodge, we see the gamut of Turkish society at the height of its power -- and at a point where it was beginning to be influenced by its old enemy, Christendom.
In the afterlife, Enishte hazards to ask Allah a question:
"Over the last twenty years of my life, I've been influenced by the infidel illustrations that I saw in Venice. There was even a time when I wanted my own portrait painted in that method and style, but I was afraid. Instead, I later had Your World, Your Subjects and Our Sultan, Your Shadow on Earth, depicted in the manner of the infidel Franks."
Enishte does not recall the deity's voice, but the answer comes through loud and clear:
"East and West belong to me."
He hazards one more question, about the meaning of it all. This time, the one word answer sounds like "mystery" or "mercy" -- he is not sure which.
This is a great novel that deserves to be read by anyone who seeks by understanding to bridge the widening rift between our civilizations.
MY NAME IS RED is a huge and densely-composed novel set in late-16th-century Istanbul among the small closed circle of miniature painters, who work their whole lives until (and even after) they go blind, illustrating books which may never been seen again by any other than their rich patrons. Though clearly a masterpiece (there has been talk about Pamuk as a potential Nobelist), it is by no means an easy read.
I came to this after reading Pamuk's later novel, SNOW. What the two have in common is a concern with Islam and an examination of its place in a secularized world; they also share a large scale and a certain sense of fantasy. But whereas SNOW is set in the modern world (albeit a distant outpost of it) and is told from a single perspective, MY NAME IS RED takes the reader back to 1591 and proceeds in a kaleidoscope of short chapters written by different characters in the story -- including Satan, a corpse, a dog, a tree, and (as in the title) a pot of red ink! Even the covers of the two books show their differences: SNOW almost monochromatic, MY NAME IS RED a collage of brilliantly colored panels and borders from miniatures such as those described in the book. The color, lightness, and even sense of fun draw the reader easily into the book until he is either held or repelled by the intensity of its philosophical argument.
There are two main plot strands: the mystery of a master miniaturist murdered by one of his colleagues, and a love story. The latter, actually, is not dissimilar to the situation in SNOW: an exile returning after many years, hoping to be reunited with a former sweetheart who has since married another man. But, as in much medieval and renaissance literature, the point is less the story than the many digressions within the story: lists, legends, historical precedents, parables and counterparables, and above all disquisitions on the nature and purpose of figurative art within a culture whose religion forbids it. Pamuk's handling of these sections is virtuosic, and they become the verbal equivalent of the miniatures and decorations in an illuminated manuscript, and the main reason why one opens the book.
I would have to say that Pamuk does not seem to put much emphasis on the delineation of character, or perhaps that he is not always successful at it. The major figures in the love story come over quite clearly: the writer Black, his beloved Shekure, her children Shevket and Orhan, and (to a lesser extent) her father Enishte. But the miniaturists -- nicknamed Olive, Butterfly, and Stork -- one of whom must be the murderer, are distinguished more by subtle differences in their attitude to their art than by qualities of character. So the reader has little alternative but to go along with the author in solving the mystery more as a theorem in aesthetics and religion than as an outcome of human nature.
The book's color and brilliance of linguistic invention reminds me a little of Salman Rushdie, though Pamuk is a much cooler writer. But the closest parallel that comes to mind (although it is a long time since I read the book) is Umberto Eco's THE NAME OF THE ROSE -- another murder mystery used to frame historical, religious, and philosophical disquisitions in the old manner. Readers who enjoyed Eco should certainly try Pamuk.
on March 2, 2002
This dense and complex work is an allegory of the Islamic/Western cultural divide. Although fascinating in the extreme, My Name is Red is definitely not a book anyone can rush through, no matter how fast he may speed read. This book is a full-course, gourmet meal and one that requires much time in order to properly appreciate all its many nuances. There is much about the Ottoman Empire in this book, but the author has chosen not to give us any background information, requiring the reader to do his own research instead. And you must do the research if you want to get the most out of the book.
My Name is Red, on its surface, is the story of Black Effendi, who returns to Istanbul after a twelve year absence only to find himself at the center of a murder investigation involving two of the city's master illuminators. Working on a secret book for the sultan, these illuminators were using two forbidden painting methods...perspective and portraiture.
Black Effendi, a civil servant, has other things on his mind than murder, however. He wishes desperately to marry his childhood sweetheart, Shekure. Unfortunately for Black Effendi, Shekure's father did not approve of him. Also quite unfortunate is the fact that Shekure's father just happens to be one of the two murder victims. So, guess who's the prime suspect? Right. Black Effendi.
Although this may all sound like the makings of a very dense and tightly-woven plot, plot actually plays a very small part in this story. The book is broken up into fifty-nine very short chapters that are told from extremely interesting perspectives: that of a horse, a dog, the color black, a butterfly, a tree and a corpse, to name just a few. Most of the narrators are quite unreliable, making the book more fun, in my opinion, but also causing the reader to need to pay very close attention to what is being said if he wants to understand the thrust of the story.
These strange narrators spin fascinating tales about such things as the Koran and its interpretation, about the intricacies of the art of illumination, the day-to-day goings on in Ottoman Empire life and the ins and outs of Turkish coffeehouse culture.
While this may seem like the very good murder mystery it is, the careful reader will find that it encompasses so much more. Pamuk has written a fascinating allegory in My Name is Red regarding the self-defeating violence that fundamentalist Islam is willing to visit upon itself simply to keep the West at bay. The most astute readers will also discover that Pamuk also gives us his version of why this violence is occurring.
My Name is Red is a dense, complex and sometimes, very difficult book, but it is one that is beautifully and exquisitely crafted. Any intelligent reader who is willing to give it the time and attention it deserves will find himself highly rewarded and will come away, not only entertained, but with a new, more educated, perspective on Islam as well.
on September 20, 2001
This is an exciting book that makes the reader forget about the author. This book is like a diary in which we learn the stories of various objects in different settings rather then that of traditional characters of a novel. A figure in a picture pinned on the wall of a coffee house frequented by the artists, a dead man lying on the bottom of a well waiting for his murderer to be found and punished, a color in a painting (crimson), all talk to the reader and explain themselves, impeding our "misunderstanding" and complementing the mystery - not only the one about the murder that is mentioned in the very beginning of the book, but also the mystery of the objects, people, whatever, and their relationship to one an other as a web of phenomena depicting a life scene from the sixteenth century Ottoman capital, Istanbul. I confess that I was reluctant to read the book when I first heard about it, knowing that a book from Mr. Pamuk is not very easy to read. Yet, the first page stroke me and I realized that I was really thirsty to read it at once. This the best book that I have read recently, I recommmend it to everyone.