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Orhan Pamuk is one of Turkey's most famous novelists. Born in Istanbul in 1952, he is now lives in America where he works as a Professor at Columbia University, teaching comparative literature and writing. His work has sold over seven million books in more than fifty languages, making him the country's best-selling writer.
Pamuk has found himself in the news on several occasions for a variety of reasons. In 2005 a criminal case was brought against him when made a statement regarding the mass killings of Armenians and Kurds in the Ottoman Empire. Although charges were dropped in 2006, rallies were held to burn his books and he became a champion of freedom of expression.
Pamuk stated that he was consequently subjected to a hate campaign that forced him to flee the country.
A less prestigious news story led him to hit the headlines in 2002, when a group of writers claimed that some parts of his work were exceedingly influenced by work belonging to other writers; in other words, that Pamuk was a plagarist. Murat Bardakci, one of the writers in a national Turkish newspaper, provided the proof for this accusation. According to Bardakci, 'My Name is Red' is a copy of American writer Norman Mailer's 'Ancient Evenings' both in terms of the story and the expression.
Pamuk hit the headlines for a third time on 12 October 2006, when he was awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature; the first time that this prize had been awarded to a Turkish citizen.
'My Name Is Red' was published in the original Turkish in 1998. I approached it with caution, knowing that it was going to be intellectually demanding, but I found it even more difficult to engage with the plot and the characters than I had expected. Each one of the 59 chapters has a different narrator, including a dead person, a dog, a coin, a motif and the colour red itself. This makes it very difficult to grasp the twists and turns of this complicated plot and even more difficult to feel any affinity with a particular character.
Described a "thrilling murder mystery", the main characters in the novel are miniaturists in the Ottoman Empire during the late 16th century. A magnificent book is commissioned to celebrate the Sultan's life as a present for the Doge of Venice. Traditional Islamic illustration is put to one side for this book, which will use Venetian or "Frankish" techniques of receding perspective and recognisable individual portraiture to portray the greatness of the Sultan; the work has to be conducted in secret because of the fear of a violent religious reaction to the modern style of illustration used.
The story revolves around the murder of one of the painters, Elegant Effendi, and the attempts of the previously exiled miniaturist, Black, to discover the identity of his murderer. Elegant was open about his objection to the Frankish style of art and the loss of traditional illumination - is this the cause of his murder? Three other miniaturists are the main suspects; Olive, Stork and Butterfly, and the attempts of Black to discover which one of them really committed the crime is woven through debates about the meaning of religion, the depiction of true art, and the interpretation of ancient Turkish fables.
Another strand of the story explores Black's love for his uncle's daughter, Shekure. Passion for his beautiful cousin was the reason for his self-imposed 12 year exile, but now that he has returned, Black finds his love as strong as ever. At the most basic level, this book is both a whodunit and a love story. Why was Elegant murdered, and can Black discover the identity of the murderer? Will his attempts to solve the crime bring Black's true love back into his arms?
The first chapter of this novel is one of the most energising and dramatic that I have read, but in the same way that novels such as 'Enduring Love' begin with a tumult of drama, the rest of the book ends up being somewhat of an anticlimax. The first words of the book are, "I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well ... as I fell, my head, which he'd smashed with a stone, broke apart; my face, my forehead and cheeks, were crushed; my bones shattered, and my mouth filled with blood". These fantastic first lines enthralled me, but their pace and dynamism is not typical of the tone of the rest of the book. 'My Name is Red' is a slow moving and intricate work; the reader needs to concentrate on the meaning that lies beneath the stories that the protagonists tell, and to soak up the philosophy and atmosphere of the world of the Ottaman Sultan Murat III.
The book was translated by Erdag Goknar; a scholar and literary translator who currently works at the American Duke University. Although he is acclaimed for providing an elegant translation which contributed to the enormous success of the novel, I had issues with certain aspects of the translation, finding it coarse and inappropriate in many respects. In particular the language relating to sexual activity jarred and stood out on the page. Formally constructed language is used throughout the book, but this creation of the ancient atmosphere is rudely disturbed by a description of the hero "Jacking off", in the corner of the room. I feel that the translator was too influenced by his American colleagues to provide a text that was totally in keeping with the mood of the novel. Some of the miniatures include pictures of copulation, and the most basic of language is used to describe this too.
Some critics have compared the patience needed by the reader to plough through this book to the patience of the miniaturists, but this analysis was lost on me. I just found the book very hard going and difficult to engage with. The story unfolds very slowly, with unreliable witnesses giving different versions of events in the form of stories on philosophical subjects. From these clues, Black must draw his own conclusions about the murder.
Although not an easy read, the book does provide some intriguing insights into the artistic world of the 16th century. Pamuk's fictional painters debate the destructive impact of Western perspective and portraiture on art, and make clear the shock felt by the Islamic world at seeing stories depicted with realism rather than traditionalism by the Western artists. The four miniaturists struggle with painting, not in the traditional Islamic two dimensional style, but in the Venetian single-point perspective. Their struggles represent the impact on the traditional Islamic world of the fast moving modern Western world, and the difficulties that eastern philophies had in accepting the changes.
I particularly found the attitude to blindness fascinating; if a miniaturist became hunchbacked and blind, this would not stop him painting - his artistry was so great that he could continue, with his blindness a outward sign of his talent and devotion. In this way, blindness is the ideal to be obtained and the reason that some devout miniaturists blinded themselves with needles. Details from the sultan's court, the studios of the artists, and the family lives of the artists are portrayed in great detail.
I know that I did not get as much out of this book as I should have, and I fully intend to read it again at a later date, perhaps trying to emulate the patience and perseverance of the Islamic artists themselves.
Published by Faber and Faber, 1998. 508 pages.
Translated by Erdag M. Goknar
This review also posted on Helium
On a snowy night in old Istanbul, Elegant Effendi, a gilder noted for his work in decorating manuscripts with gold leaf, is lured to a deserted backstreet. Here his skull is smashed with a rock and his body dumped down a disused well.
'Let's consider a piece by Bihzad, the master of masters, patron saint of all miniaturists. I happened across this masterpiece, which also nicely pertains to my situation because it's a depiction of murder, among the pages of a flawless ninety-year-old book of the Herat school.'
We know this is the murderer talking - though not his identity - because the chapter heading has told us so. If we had our wits about us, we could already be picking up clues to help us unravel the mystery, but our wits are somewhat befuddled at this early stage in the narrative. The quotation above is taken from the fourth of the fifty-nine chapters of 'My Name is Red'. The chapters are shared out among no fewer than twenty narrators. For example, Chapter 1 is ostensibly written posthumously by the spirit of Elegant, the murderer's first victim; Chapter 2 by Black, who will later emerge both as the male protagonist in the love affair that is one of the central strands of the story and as one of the detectives who eventually unmask the murderer; Chapter 3 by a dog.
And so on. Not all the narrators are major characters, or human, or even animal. If this were a game of Twenty Questions, vegetable and mineral would also feature, as would abstract. At first this multiplicity of unlikely story-tellers seems not only confusing but perverse, but there is method in the apparent madness, and the purpose becomes clearer as the tale unfolds.
'My Name is Red', by the Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, is a complex tale told in a complicated fashion. It is set in the late 16th century, when Istanbul was the capital of the mighty Ottoman Empire that stretched from the Danube in the north-west to the Tigris in the east and the Nile in the south.
The Ottoman Sultan has ordered a lavishly illustrated book to be compiled as a diplomatic gift to the Doge of Venice. The commission for organising its compilation devolves on Enishte Effendi, Black's uncle. Enishte is chosen because he has visited Venice and is well-versed in the artistic techniques that have emerged in Renaissance Italy. He conceives the notion that the book will be most impressive and prestigious if it utilises some of those techniques - perspective, chiaroscuro, portraiture - rather than simply following the stylised traditions of Islamic art. With this in mind he subcontracts parts of the illustrative work piecemeal to Istanbul's leading decorative artists of the time, known by their nicknames - Butterfly, Olive and Stork - and the gilder Elegant, but briefs none of them fully on how their work is to be used.
Under the circumstances, this is no straightforward artistic commission, but one overshadowed by politics and religion. To illustrate in the infidel style will upset influential traditionalists, and might even be judged heretical. This potential for dangerous controversy serves to stir the seething stew of personal and professional rivalries between the contributing artists.
Enishte also seeks to involve Black, who has trained as an artist and calligrapher, in the preparation of the book. Black has recently returned from many years' travelling in the east, a self-imposed exile following his rejection as a suitor for the hand of his cousin Shekure, Enishte's daughter. Instead she married a cavalry officer by whom she has had two sons, but her husband has been missing for four years after failing to return from a campaign. Presuming him dead, and desperate for a surrogate father for her children, she is responsive to Black's renewed advances. But since she is not officially a widow, and since her brother-in-law Hasan is also enamoured of her, bringing their love affair to a happy ending does not prove to be a simple matter either.
These artistic and amorous issues are still unresolved when Enishte too is murdered. Black is rounded up by the Sultan's enforcers to help in the investigation, under the threat that he and the other artists will all be subjected to torture if the murderer is not identified within three days. As Black toils with Master Osman, the aged Head Illuminator at the Palace workshop, to detect the villain from stylistic clues, Shekure is left alone with her children to fend off Hasan and his hired henchmen.
Suddenly, after its long, leisurely opening, the plot gathers pace towards a climactic conclusion.
'My Name is Red' is a historical novel encompassing a detective story, a love story and a philosophical debate. As such it is often compared with 'The Name of the Rose' by Umberto Eco. There are similarities, but there are also differences.
Both are superb in creating and conveying the historical context. Before reading this book, I had only the haziest notion of what 16th century Istanbul might be like to live in, but I now feel I know it well. I don't, of course, but Pamuk's recreation of it is so plausible and so well sustained that it pervades the reader's consciousness. The descriptive writing is rich. This is one of the book's successes.
As a detective story, I found it rather less successful. The range of suspects is quickly narrowed down to the three artists: Butterfly, Olive and Stork. For the reader, the clues to identifying the murderer among them are not those of means and opportunity - they all have both - but of pinpointing the crucial motive from what they themselves, in their chapters, have to say about their outlook and ambitions. This makes the reader's viewpoint subtly different from that of the detectives in the story, Black and Master Osman, who approach their task as a matter of artistic analysis.
This disparity in itself makes for unsatisfying puzzle-solving, but I had a further difficulty in that I found it hard to keep the distinctions between the three clear in my mind, and harder still to care about them. This may simply betray a lack of intellectual grip and emotional involvement on my part, but I feel my attention could have been more effectively engaged had the puzzle been presented differently.
The love interest is handled much better, and is engaging. The character of Shekure is pivotal in this success. Is she really in love with Black, or simply using him? Clever, manipulative yet vulnerable, she keeps the reader guessing to the end, and caring about the outcome.
Finally, there is the philosophical debate, which is a multi-layered one. Superficially about the nature of Islamic art, it touches on more universal themes: of tradition versus innovation, of discipline versus inspiration, of orthodoxy versus individuality. And, of course, there are resonances for contemporary controversies about the Islamic and Western outlooks. These themes may or may not interest you, depending on taste, but to me they seemed more stimulating and relevant than the dry mediaeval theology of 'The Name of the Rose', and more delicately handled.
Indeed, overall, despite the weakness of its detective element, I thought that 'My Name is Red' is at least as good a book as 'The Name of the Rose', which is saying something.
Orhan Pamuk was born in 1952 in Istanbul where, apart from a brief sojourn in New York, he has lived ever since. He was trained as an architect and journalist, and has published six novels, of which four have been translated into English. 'My Name is Red', first published in 1998, is his best known work. He is also a noted authority on Islamic art, and was adviser to the recent exhibition of historic Turkish art at the Royal Academy, London.
Although he is Turkey's most internationally acclaimed author - an acclaim that has culminated in his being awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature - Pamuk is a controversial figure in his own country. His latest novel 'Snow' deals with sensitive contemporary themes, including religious and nationalist extremism. He was last year charged by the Turkish authorities with "publicly denigrating the Turkish nation" for lending his voice to calls for greater openness about the massacres of Armenian and Kurdish minorities in the early part of the last century. The charge was eventually dropped after an international outcry.
When I first read 'My Name is Red' two years ago I was convinced that it was an important book, but I didn't much enjoy it. It was easy to find things to admire - the sustained atmosphere, the characterisation, the scholarship, the knitting together of the many-threaded plot - but persevering through to the pay-off was heavy going. Maybe that was why it took me so long to review it.
Coming back after an interval to write the review, I thought "I'd better have a quick skim through to refresh the memory" but before long I found myself re-reading every word, and savouring them. I saw how much I'd missed the first time round, and how cleverly it all fitted together. Mark Twain once described Wagner's music as "better than it sounds". Pamuk's writing is similarly better than it reads on first acquaintance. It is complex, but subtle and deep, and repays deep attention.
'My Name is Red' by Orhan Pamuk, translated into English by Erdag Göknar, is published in the UK in paperback by Faber and Faber, ISBN 0-571-21224-7, cover price £7.99. It can, of course, be found more cheaply on the internet.
© first published under the name torr on Ciao UK, September 7th 2005
In Istanbul, in the late 1590s, the Sultan secretly commissions a great book: a celebration of his life and his empire, to be illuminated by the best artists of the day - in the European manner. But when one of the miniaturists goes missing and is feared murdered, their master seeks outside help.