Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red (2002)

Author: Orhan Pamuk

Title: My Name is Red

Format: E-book

Pages: 335

Series: –

“To avoid disappointment in art, one mustn’t treat is as a career. Despite whatever great artistic sense and talent a man might possess, he ought to seek money and power elsewhere to avoid forsaking his art when he fails to receive proper compensation for his gifts and efforts.”

The Turkish 2006 Nobel Prize Winner in literature, Orhan Pamuk has gained popularity in the West mainly through two books: My Name is Red (first published in 1998) and Snow (first published in 2002), but by that time he was already very well-known – and quite controversial – in Turkey. Pamuk, born in Istanbul in a multicultural family (his grandmother was Circassian), explores in his books the liminal space between cultures and religions, where ideas, aesthetic preferences and beliefs clash and mutually influence one another. In the case of My Name is Red, that exploration is enriched by deeply philosophical musings on the nature and essence of human perception – both of the reality, the outside world, and of the idea and existence of God. The aesthetical angle of the novel, presented through many-voiced conversations on seeing, imagining, painting, change, and style, and on the nature and purpose of art, constitutes a fascinating examination of cultural differences between East and West, Islam and Christianity.

This deeply philosophical essay is deftly hidden in a complex love story, which in turn comes neatly packed into a murder mystery. Taking place in turbulent times, in wintry Istanbul in 1591, My Name is Red offers a kaleidoscopic view of a multitude of diverse, sometimes contrary perspectives; a plethora of unreliable narrators;  tongue-in-cheek play with other literary and artistic works – and  with itself, twisting and turning and changing rules of the game mid-play; instances of breaking the fourth wall, and plenty of other postmodern literary devices – all employed in service of a cavalierly conventional story.

“Doubtless, you too have experienced what I’m about to describe: At times, while walking through the infinite and winding streets of Istanbul, while spooning a bite of vegetable stew into my mouth at a public kitchen or squinting with fixed attention on the curved design of a reed-style border illumination, I feel like I’m living the present as if it were the past. That is, when I’m walking down the street whitewashed with snow, I’ll have the urge to say that I was walking down it.”

I’m not going to write about the plot, as I believe it’s the least important element of this novel; suffice to say there is a young man, Black, coming back after years of exile; there’s a young, beautiful and cunning woman, Shekure, a widow (or not?) with two children; there’s Shekure’s father, Enishte Effendi, Black’s maternal uncle, a well-connected, well-travelled old gentleman with a commission from Sultan himself; there are the miniaturists working on his secret project: a wily bunch of young men, as full of talent as they are of insecurities: Olive, Butterfly, Stork and Elegant; there’s also Shekure’s husband’s brother, Hassan, madly and desperately in love; lastly, there’s Esther, clothier-cum-messenger, our Greek choir alchemically molten into one person. And we get to read the thoughts and lies and explanations of them all – and more: there’s even a POV of the colour red.

“If you ever happen to become a clothier-cum-messenger like Esther, you’ll soon learn that only wealth, might and legendary romances stir people’s curiosity. Everything else is but worry, separation, jealousy, loneliness, enmity, tears, gossip and never-ending poverty.”  

The narrative part of this novel is, as I said, conventional; if you’ve read mysteries, you’ll probably have no problems with identifying the murderer early on – after all, they are really not hiding from us, readers 😉. Similarly, the love story is for the most part a pretext for a deeper exploration of gender and cultural relations in sixteenth-century Istanbul, on the verge of great changes, seesawing between contrary impulses and keenly feeling the impossibility of stopping time.

“Next, Black said what I’d heard from every man who wasn’t afraid to admit he found me very intelligent:

“You’re very beautiful.”

“Yes,” I said, “it pleases me to be praised for my intelligence.””

And, to be honest, I think that more complex or ambitious story would not fare well in the context of true aim of My Name is Red: an in-depth analysis of the aesthetical and philosophical problems of art. But, as picky as I am about the conservative nature of the plot, I will say one thing: lulled as I was by its predictability, I had been blindsided by the ending – and for that, for this amazing twist of perception, I applaud Pamuk.

My Name is Red is not a book that lends itself to being devoured. It took me over a month, and several books, to finish this one, in dainty bites. It has its clunky moments, some of the characters are difficult to like at the beginning, and I needed some time to adjust to its peculiar slow rhythm. Its prose is dense and convoluted, but at the same time it’s deeply thought-provoking, and utterly mesmerizing in its portrayal of sixteenth-century Islam – as well as the city of Istanbul, which becomes a character in its own right. Don’t get me wrong, though – it’s not only a cerebral exercie; it can be brutal, death and maiming never far from the characters’ thoughts and deeds – and quite funny too, in a witty, self-conscious way, winking to the reader while revelling in its own subversive irony.

“Forty years ago, the Persian Shah Tahmasp, who was the archenemy of the Ottomans as well as the world’s greatest patron-king of the art of painting, began to grow senile and lost his enthusiasm for wine, music, poetry and painting; furthermore, he quit drinking coffee, and naturally, his brain stopped working. […] One day when he had grown even older, he was possessed by a jinn, had a nervous fit, and begging God’s forgiveness, completely swore off wine, handsome young boys and painting, which is proof enough that after this great shah lost his taste for coffee, he also lost his mind.”

I enjoyed and appreciated this book very much. It’s not perfect, but it’s refreshingly, wondrously Other; Pamuk, bridging West and East, manages not only to explore the differences between them in a meaningful way, but also to find a common ground between them. My Name is Red, this wonderful, bitter-sweet glimpse into the past, will stay with me for a long time.

P.S. If I convinced you to give this book a try, please don’t forget to check out the amazing miniatures from the period – I added a few images here, but there’s wealth of them to be admired and loved!

Score: 9/10

32 thoughts on “Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red (2002)

    1. I think my interest in it was sparked around the time Turkey wanted to join EU. So, I’ve been tiptoing around this book for a good few years now, and finally decided to read it 😉

      I actually think you might enjoy it – it’s a delightfully slow book, and offers a wealth of knowledge about the period in Islam when miniatures were being created in Istanbul under various conflicting influences from East and West. There’s also something uniquely universal about the people’s needs and dreams and conflicts from centuries ago.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. A love story mixed in with a murder mystery but that mostly focuses on exposing cultural differences and whatnot? It really does sound fascinating and insightful. It does also sound like it can’t be rushed through to fully appreciate what the author tried to achieve. Fantastic review, Ola!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it’s a slow book, but a delightful one! And from a perspective of a comic book fan such as you or I, it gives additional insight into the creative processes – I particularly loved the philosophical discussion on the nature of art and perception, especially because miniature and graphic novels turned out to have surprisingly much in common – the question of style, of pattern and color, of an individual ambition versus tradition… I hope I hooked you already! 😁

      Thanks, Lashaan! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Absolutely agree. It’s a fascinating discussion in itself, especially the intimate and personal experience of those exposed to that process. I’ve got a review that strikes that chord too coming up next. 😀

        Rest assured, ALL your 8+/10 reviews have me hooked. But, like you, I have to prioritize your 10/10s first hahaha

        Liked by 1 person

        1. That’s good to know! I do like spreading love for great books! 😀 Truth be told, I’ve been vacillating on the score for this one, and finally decided not to give it 10/10 just because the narrative part of the story itself is rather on the more unassuming side 😉 Though it is intriguing, don’t get me wrong! 😀

          I’ll be looking forward to your next review, then! 😀

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Your review made me think about this book a bit differently. I have read it a couple of years ago but it wasn’t for me. I appreciated a lot of things, because there is quite a lot going on for this book, but I didn’t enjoyed it on a personal level. I always felt detached by it, in some ways. But you remembered me that this was a good book nonetheless!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I totally understand; I think this book is best experienced when you know up front what you’re getting into; particularly that the plot is really secondary to the philosophical and aesthetic discussion of art. This way, you can adjust your expectations accordingly and not be let down by the plot or characters 🙂 Glad I could remind you of this one! 😄

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, you’ve convinced me, Ola, I’ve put it on my TBR list. What a great review. I do love it when I can start out with a few keys to the text, and giving us the illustrations is an added temptation.

    I read Red, early in the spring, in much the same way you describe reading this, with similar results. It’s one of those books that I find myself remembering at unexpected moments.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. buriedinprint

    Like you, I’ve had this on my shelves for aaaaaaaages. I took it off, earlier this year, with a Ben Okri novel, but I ended up reading the Ben Okri novel instead. (Not having read Pamuk, I don’t know for sure if this is entirely accurate, but I feel like they both write very dense and thoughtful sentences, the kind that take an extra amount of concentration. That kind of attention to each line isn’t always plentiful.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This novel requires a lot of focus, especially if one’s to fully understand the artistic conflict driving the plot and influencing the world; there’s a lot of detail here, even if the plot itself is simple. So yes, to be fair to this book you’d probably need a solid bit of attention and a willingness to explore this Gordian knot of art/philosophy/identity at the center of this novel. Good thing is that it can be read and appreciated in small doses 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. buriedinprint

        I’m not abandoning the idea of reading it this year, but it’s good to know that my hunch was right, so I’ll create the right kind of space in my stack. One of the most appealing/curious parts for me is that you’ve said there’s a POV for the colour red…that reminds me of James Hannihan’s Delicious Foods, which was one of my favourite books that reading year, and which includes addiction as one of the many POVs. These are the kinds of devices that could fall flat, of course, but in the right hands, they’re fascinating.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Pamuk creates lots of POVs beyond the main protagonists, and they work great here as a side commentary, sometimes serving as explorations of certain more esoteric themes – several illustrations have their own POVs as well, though these are just one-offs, non-recurring vignettes. There’s one for a tree, a dog, Death, and so on… It certainly makes the reading more intriguing 😀

          Liked by 2 people

  5. I’ve read about this novel before. I think you are absolutely right, it does require time and attention to get the full benefit from the book. Despite of the relatively simple plot, it sounds like there is a lot to be digested. Potentially, I might enjoy this one very much, but I’m fairly sure I have to be in the”right” state of mind to be able to process it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree; this one requires a bit of good will and some free mental space to be really appreciated. I loved the ruminations about philosophy of art and aesthetics, I felt this was as much a fundamental part of the book as the plot itself, or even more. But I can also see how this might be viewed as a boring inconvenience if one isn’t in the right state of mind for such mental exercises! 😉
      I do hope you’ll read this one day and love it as much as I did!

      Liked by 2 people

  6. piotrek

    I’ve read it, and “Snow”, shortly after he got his Nobel prize. This was a great book, slow but very rewarding. I remember I enjoyed “Snow” a little bit more, with its contemporary political context.

    Pamuk describing a troubled feelings Istanbul middle class had towards the military periodically “cleansing” the political scene… impressive, complex and very self-reflective.

    This was a great historical novel that gave me a little action, but a lot of food for thought. I always recommend it, and probably a re-read is due 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. “Snow” is on my TBR 🙂 Now that I know what it’s about I’m even more intrigued! Especially in the context of Pamuk being persecuted for speaking about Armenian genocide in Turkey.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. piotrek

        “Snow” is, I felt, about the problems of Turkey that we saw as this open, modern country soon to join Turkey – or rather, it showed that the situation is much more complicated. In comparison to what’s going on right now… heh.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. You’ve piqued my curiosity, that’s for sure! I’ll bump it up on my TBR, hopefully I’ll manage to read it this year. Maybe it showed the trends that have become dominant later on, and maybe it was like a beginning of the tale of the sorcerer’s apprentice… Certain things should not be let lose, as we well know by now 😉

          Liked by 2 people

  7. Nice review! It is great to hear you enjoyed it. Have you read or reviewed any other books by Pamuk? I am toying with the idea of reading his A Strangeness in My Mind, but have not yet definitely decided to read it. Speaking also of My Name is Red, I would probably have given Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World a lesser score if I first read My Name is Red. Ideas are not copyrightable and drawing inspiration is great – but I remember I said that her concept in the book of “the mind leaving the body, and the soul (of a murdered person) talking to us” was “original” and it so happens that she and Pamuk are both from Turkey and decided to include murder mysteries in their books which also try to point and demonstrate Turkey’s political and social conditions (irrespective of the different timelines). Well, I just wish most people who are so in love with Shafak’s creation will actually (also) read Pamuk’s My Name is Red – a much more complex, masterful and accomplished novel than Shafak’s counterpart.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Diana! 😊

      I was not aware of another writer using this concept, particularly to such a huge extent, and I agree that’s maybe not forbidden, but nonetheless just… bad style – especially if the author fails to mention the source of inspiration. Yes, Pamuk’s book is special – not only amazing in the range of literary concepts and artistic ideas it employs and discusses, but also because he portrays an age long gone and it’s people in such a relatable, insightful way.
      I’ll take a look at Shafak’s book, out of curiosity – thanks for the insight and the warning! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks! It’s a really intriguing book and I think it offers insight not only into the Islam culture of Istanbul ages past but also into modern Turkey’s culture and worldviews. I’d be very interested in your thoughts on it!

      Liked by 1 person

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