Author: Orhan Pamuk
Title: My Name is Red
“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!