Monday, March 24, 2014

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk, born in 1952, is a Turkish novelist, screenwriter, and professor of comparative literature. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006, and ten of his novels are available in English. I've been aware of his name for a long time (his first book published in the U.S., The White Castle, appeared in 1991) because he is a major literary figure who generally receives positive reviews, but until three weeks ago I'd never looked into one of his books.

I don't know if My Name is Red is the place to start because it is a rich, complex tapestry that spreads over nine days in Istanbul in 1591 and requires the reader's attention. Pamuk tells the story in an unusual fashion. A different voice narrates each chapter and the first, "I am a corpse" is that of a just-murdered illuminator who works on books commissioned by the Sultan, Refuge of the World. Other voices include a dog, a tree, a gold coin, death, the color red, a horse, and Satan. Certain voices central to the main story, of course, recur several times explaining, amplifying, observing the other characters and their actions.

Most of the human characters are miniaturists who specialize in Persian/Ottoman art: Horses, trees, flowers, leaves, human figures. One thread that runs through the book is the effect Western ("Frankish") painting will have/is having on traditional Islamic illuminated manuscripts. Do you paint the ideal world, the world as Allah sees it (a Platonic world of forms), or do you follow the Venetians and attempt to paint an individual, unique horse?

Another thread is the romance between Shekure, a presumed widow, and Black, who had loved her, left to make a career as a calligrapher and clerk, and returns twelve years later. Leaving his wife and two boys, Shekure's husband had gone off to the wars four years before the novel begins, has not been heard of since. How can Black marry her and bring her into his own house?

Then there is the murder that begins the book. The Sultan, who may have provoked the original killing because he commissioned a book to be illustrated in the European style (an affront to Allah), gives the workshop's master illustrator and Black three days to find the killer or he will use his own methods to solve the mystery: torture and beheading.

The novel, translated from the Turkish by Erdag M. Göknar and published by Knopf in 2001, does not read like a translation. Rather I found it to be fascinating introduction to a place, a time, society, and a culture about which I know virtually nothing. It is a world of religious tension. of coffeehouse storytellers, go-betweens, and devotion to an artistic tradition that is about to be swept away.

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