Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red

I finished reading Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red, last week.  Published in 1998 and translated from the Turkish in 2001, it is an interesting oddity—a historical novel, a love story, a murder mystery and a novel of ideas.  Pamuk won the 2006 Nobel Prize for literature.

The chapters have various narrators, all addressing the reader in a conversational style.  The narrators are not just the principal characters, but the two dead murder victims, their anonymous murderer, illustrations of a dog, a horse, a tree, two dervishes, Satan and Death, an unnamed man imagining himself as a woman and the color red.

Islamic Empires. Click to enlarge

The setting is 1591 Istanbul, capital of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled north Africa, western Asia and the Balkans. a territory as extensive as the Roman Empire.

The Ottomans were eventually left behind by modern civilization, but at the height of their power, some Europeans admired their government, in which administrators were chosen for ability and disinterested loyalty, not noble birth, wealth or connections.

By the standards of the time, the Ottoman Empire was notably tolerant in religion.  It gave refuge to persecuted Jews and heretical Christians, including unitarians.

In the novel, Sultan Murat III commissions an illustrated book to celebrate the glories of his realm.  The problem is that he wants it painted in the European style, which many of his subjects consider contrary to Islam..

Pamuk’s artists see art is a form of mysticism.  A picture of a horse should be an ideal horse, a horse as God sees it, not a recognizable image of a particular horse.  If an artist has a unique style, that is an imperfection in his art.  The works of the greatest artists should be indistinguishable because they converge on a true vision.

I don’t know to what degree actual Turkish and Persian artists of the time thought that way and how much is Pamuk’s invention.

The two murders in the novel are a product of the murderer’s fear that the artists will be attacked by fanatic religious mobs if knowledge of their project gets out.

Two characters. the master miniaturist Osman and the apprentice Black, are given 72 hours to solve the second murder.

If they fail, the Ottoman judicial system will revert to its default procedure, which is to torture all suspects (in this case, including Osman and Black) until someone confesses or offers evidence of guilt of someone else.

To be fair, judicial torture was part of the judicial systems of Europe and China at the time, and the Ottoman system was used by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in its hunt for terrorists following the 9/11 attacks.

I’m sure Pamuk planted enough clues to identify the murderer in advance, but I did not figure out who he was until the end.

Black is in love with the beautiful Shekuri, daughter of the illustrator Enishte, who is in charge of the Sultan’s manuscript project.  He has returned from eight years of wandering and found that she is married and the mother of two young sons.

Her husband is a warrior who has been missing in action for four years, and she lives in the house of her domineering father-in-law and lustful brother-in-law.  So she sees Black as a possible solution to her problem.

The two female characters, Shekuri and Esther, the Jewish neighborhood matchmaker and fixer, are the only ones who are able to think two or three steps ahead.  All the male characters are prisoners of passion and illusion..

There are fables within the main story and many, many allusions to how various illustrations related to Turkish and Persian literate and folklore.  I found this part of the novel tedious because I don’t know the background.

My Name Is Red would not be to everybody’s taste.  I found it interesting for its characters.  They operated under very different cultural assumptions from mine, but still reflected universal human nature in unexpected ways.

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2 Responses to “Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red”

  1. silverapplequeen Says:

    I bought this book at a library book sale recently & haven’t had time to read it yet. Perhaps it’s time to give it a good look!

    Like

  2. Stephen Badrich Says:

    What a great review!

    Like

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