This is the second work of historical fiction I’ve read in a month that has a colour in its title and features art as a significant component of its story. The other, Sacré Bleu, was an irreverent “comedy d’art” by Christopher Moore. My Name is Red definitely isn’t that. Good thing I like to read widely!
My Name is Red opens with the voice of a dead man. Elegant Effendi describes the sensations of knowing he is dead, of his spirit decoupling from his body. He hopes his murderer will be found and brought to justice (the more creative the better). From there, Orhan Pamuk goes on to hop perspectives every chapter, weaving a story of magic and mystery in sixteenth-century Istanbul. Centred around a workshop of miniaturists who are working on a somewhat controversial book for the Sultan, My Name is Red dips into some of the questions raised in the sixteenth century as the Ottoman Empire continued to coexist uneasily next to the Christian nations of Western Europe. The time is the past and the setting is, as always, that battleground between change and tradition.
This book reminds me a lot of The Name of the Rose. Superficially they have so many similarities: both are translations, one from Turkish and one from Italian. Both are set in the past and involve a murder mystery. Both are written in a style that is, if not challenging, then definitely demanding of one’s full attention. Beyond the surface, though, the striking similarities continue: both of these novels are about the tension between different schools of thought. In The Name of the Rose it’s the growing chasm between science and religion, between the empirical principles of Bacon and Occam and the spiritual communion of the Franciscans and Dominicans. In My Name is Red it’s the clash between the older, traditional ways of depicting people in Islamic art and the new style imported from Venice—a style that, some worry, comes too close to the real thing. And in both these novels, the murders are inextricably linked to these questions of style, change, and tradition.
I can see why many people express frustration over this book’s narration. It’s not the easiest book to read. Translated from Turkish, My Name is Red doesn’t always have the same kind of unity and coherence that a novel originally written in English might have. Moreover, Pamuk has very little time for dialogue. Most of the book is either description or introspection from the narrator to the reader. My Name is Red reminds me of a stage play. In each scene, several actors would be in tableaux while the narrator of the scene delivers an extensive monologue. Then, with a flourish, he or she triggers the action, the other actors unfreeze, and the plot drags forward for a few minutes before the narrator re-assumes control. Although i understand why some people see the narrators as flat, I thought the moments when they comment on their actions, their drawings or letter-writing or courting, were quite confessional. Just the character and I in a musty, dark room, as the character hurriedly scribbles out the journal of their last days. One of them is a murderer ….
Thanks to the way Pamuk structures the novel, attempting to discover the identity of the murderer is half the fun. The murderer narrates both as himself and as his ordinary miniaturist alter ego, always careful never to reveal anything about his actions as a miniaturist that would shed light on his identity. So, for example, Pamuk has each of the three suspect miniaturists tell three parables labelled Aliph, Bet, Djim, allowing the murderer to refer to these stories without revealing which miniaturist he is. But the clues are there, getting louder as the novel approaches the climax and the identity of the murderer is revealed. I was sure it was one miniaturist pretty early on—and I was wrong. So it goes.
The miniaturists’ chapters are also very interesting looks at the ongoing debate regarding Islamic versus Western art. Is it sacrilege to paint in the Frankish style? What is style, anyway? Is it sacrilege to have one’s own style, rather than labouring to faithfully reproduce the old pieces as flawlessly as possible? True flawlessness, of course, just like true creativity, is the domain of Allah and not something a mere human artist could achieve. These questions spill over beyond the miniaturists’ chapters, however, and into the concurrent love story between Shekure and Black and the murder mystery itself. The ideas Pamuk juggles are particularly appropriate to the context of the story, but they are timeless and still relevant today.
Above all else, Pamuk manages to convey how personal the process of making and rendering art can be. Making art is a thoughtful, time-consuming activity that can be as emotionally draining as it is physically. The crises of faith experienced in My Name is Red are all too real. They happen as a result of the expression of self necessary for art to be possible: what you make, and how you make it, says something about yourself and your convictions, what you believe and the values you hold dear. To set that down on paper, in ink, in stone, on canvas, for others to view and discuss and rip apart … it’s a little terrifying. Worse still, in the act of such creation, you begin to think about these beliefs and sometimes even question them—or, through the influence of other creators, you realize that there are other sets of beliefs out there. Which ones are true, better, practical, enriching, etc.? Does it even matter?
So, you know, art is serious business. Serious enough in this case that someone was willing to kill Elegant Effendi for questioning if what they were doing was compatible with the wishes of Allah. On one hand, such actions seem like the same old, same old internecine and destructive effects of organized religion—but that would be a disingenuous and uncharitable evaluation. For on the other hand, the conflict in My Name is Red is less about religion and more about personal values that hinge upon the intersection of history, politics, faith, and art.
It took me a while to read My Name is Red, partly because I did so while moving to another country and partly because of its heavily stylized narration. But read it I did. While it did not necessarily excite me or enthrall me in the same way The Name of the Rose did, its meditations on the nature of art and artistry, style and sacrilege and sacrifice, are still interesting. It is a deep and thoughtful book; as long as you are willing to spend the time and effort on it, it is also a rewarding one.