Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

18 April, 2012

My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk

What an extraordinary book.My Name Is Red is a murder mystery, a love story, a meditation on art, and an examination of Turkey's Janus-like existence as the crossroads of East and West. Plus I suppose one can also say that it is also about storytelling. Very meta.

The novel takes place in Istanbul. The year is 1591 and Sultan Murat III rules the Ottoman Empire. (There's a handy chronology at the back of the book.) To mark the 1000th anniversary of the Hijra, as measured by the lunar calendar, the sultan has commissioned Enishte Effendi to create a book. He, in turn, enlists four miniaturists or illuminators that go by the names Elegant, Stork, Olive, and Butterfly. At the time, Islamic art was being challenged by that of Western Europe – the Venetians or “Frankish art” as it is sometimes called in the book. Religious prohibitions in the Islamic world against imagery and idolatry led to the development of art that eschewed realism and perspective. Painting was to mimic how Allah saw the world from on high, not how men perceived it. Bihzad, who practiced his art in Herat (which is in Afghanistan today) is the old master of this form.

But the sultan has ordered that the book utilize Venetian techniques. Scenes use perspective and the leaves of trees are detailed. With the fundamentalist preacher Nusret Hoja of Erzurum stirring up the crowds, this stylistic glance to the infidels causes consternation among the miniaturists and leads to the death of Elegant. The book opens with his dead yet still ensouled body lying at the bottom of a well. He warns the reader, “My death conceals an appalling conspiracy against our religion, our traditions, and the way we see the world.”

Meanwhile Black has returned to Istanbul after some 12 years serving as secretary to one pasha or another. Enishte is his uncle and, back in his youth, Black fell in love with Enishte's daughter, Shekure. The uncle rejected his nephew as a suitor and so Black went into a self-imposed exile. These many years later Shekure is married with two small children but her husband went to fight in the army but has not been heard from in four years. She and her sons live with her father. When Black is enlisted by his uncle to help finish the book, the cousins meet again. Black's love for Shekure hasn't faded and, while she has feelings for him, she plays hard to get. Plus there's the matter of her still technically being married.

The story is told in the first person but from multiple points of view: Enishte and his miniaturists, the lovers and Esther, a clothier who acts as a messenger between them, and Master Osman, the miniaturists mentor. There are also tales told by a storyteller who practices his art at a coffeehouse. The miniaturists give him pictures and he improvises stories from the point of view of the image. And so a dog, a gold coin, a tree, Death, a horse, Satan, and two dervishes all get their turn upon the stage. The thing is, the reader doesn't actually learn that these tales are being told by the storyteller until late in the book when his identity is revealed as is that he is a transvestite enamored of the thought of being a woman. Furthermore the narrators often address the reader, as if he or she were telling us their story. Going back to Elegant in that well, he implores us to find his killer and offers a bargain: we find his murderer and then he'll reveal what the Afterlife is like. In another chapter, Shekure boasts that everyone who sees her thinks that she looks like a 16 year-old maiden instead of a 24 year-old mother of two. “Believe them,” she warns, “truly believe them, or I shan't tell you any more.”

I take this stylistic device to be a reflection of the debate in the book about Islamic vs. Frankish art. At the time, portraiture was strictly verboten in the Islamic world. Allah was the center of all things and portraits put us puny humans up front and perhaps even above Allah. Writing in the first person and from multiple perspectives draws the reader to this conflict with each character given his or her time in the limelight. Instead of being a puppet with Allah pulling the strings, characters are fleshed out in detail just as in European art. Another effect of this technique is that it obscures just who is the protagonist here. Ostensibly it is Black as he gets the most chances to tell his story (though not by much), it is he who is trying to get the girl, so to speak, and it is he who is attempting to find Elegant's murderer. But Shekure has several chances to give her narrative and she dictates the terms of her relationship For example, the murderer is shown to be one of the miniaturists and he kills Enishte after losing his temper. Shekure vows that she will not sleep with Black until he finds her father's killer. I suppose Black may claim the title of protagonist but only just.

I wasn't too far into the book before I realized that my comprehension would be greatly abetted if I were to learn more about the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire as well as modern day Turkey. While I have some very general, high level knowledge of the Ottoman Empire and understand that Turkey has historically been torn between East and West and remains so today as it struggles with being a secular state in the Western tradition, I still feel like a lot of My Name Is Red went way over my head. But in a good way.

What I did get out of the book was a lot of dualities. Nusret Hoja preaches the past and the East - fundamentalist Islam – while the sultan looks West and, in hindsight, to the future. Art. Should it be about submitting to the view of Allah or should it be about man's artistic desires and his point of view? Love is also a dual concept here. Black simply wants Shekure. He loves and lusts after her. He longs for her touch and gets an erection when embracing her. Shekure is more practical. She has feelings, yes, but she is also bound by the mores of her society which means there are very practical considerations for her to take into account. Plus her future and her children's future are of equal, if not more, importance than the affection she feels towards Black.

I feel like I have at least a tentative grasp of most of the book's themes but the one that really eludes me is the idea of storytelling. The tales of the dog and whatnot told by the storyteller at the coffeehouse comment upon some of the other themes but why was he killed? Shekure gets the last word in. One of her sons is named Orhan and she says that she wants him to write the story of the book. She tells us that she related it to him but warns the reader, “For the sake of a delightful and convincing story, there isn't a lie Orhan wouldn't deign to tell.” What is Pamuk saying about himself here? Something of import or a post-modern gimmick?

Methinks a second reading is in order. With a highlighter.
|| Palmer, 1:23 PM


Very insightful post. I read My Name is Red last year; and I think I think I will read the book once again towards the end of this year. This is indeed a marvelous book, a celebration of story telling.

By the way, have you read Mr. Pamuk's other books? The Black Book and Snow are equally great novels.

~Greetings from India.
Blogger RKP, at 4:49 PM  
Hello RKP - Thanks for your comment. MNiR definitely requires reading more than once. I have not read anything else by Mr. Pamuk, but I will certainly have to. Thank you for the recommendations. I saw one of his other books at a used book store a few days ago. I think it was Snow. Does it take place in 1975?
Blogger Palmer, at 9:02 AM  

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