BOOK REVIEW : My Name Is Red By Orhan Pamuk

One of Pamuk’s most astonishing works is set in the late 16th century, during the reign of Sultan Murat III, a patron of the miniaturists whose art had come over from Persia in the course of the previous hundred years. Translated by Erdag M. Goknor, it tells a story of two murders among Murat’s court artists; one of Elegant, a master miniaturist, the other of Enishte, a cunningly complicated figure commissioned by the sultan to produce a book by his four finest artists, Elegant among them.

One of Pamuk’s most astonishing works is set in the late 16th century, during the reign of Sultan Murat III, a patron of the miniaturists whose art had come over from Persia in the course of the previous hundred years. Translated by Erdag M. Goknor, it tells a story of two murders among Murat’s court artists; one of Elegant, a master miniaturist, the other of Enishte, a cunningly complicated figure commissioned by the sultan to produce a book by his four finest artists, Elegant among them. The book is secret; the miniaturists only dimly suspect what it will amount to, and they barely admit to themselves the radically nontraditional nature of Enishte’s commission.

They fear the terror of being branded for heresy by the powerful Muslim clergy and punished by the sultan, whose dangerously elusive intentions are hidden from them and ashamed because they are imbued with the tradition they are violating, even as they both long and dread to violate it.

The Sultan has commissioned an illustrated book to demonstrate his power to the Venetian Doge. Because it will employ controversial aspects of the Frankish style, head illustrator Osman has been bypassed and the project given to Enishte, who coordinates miniaturists nicknamed Elegant, Stork, Olive, and Butterfly. But when Elegant suspects the orthodoxy of the final page and threatens to denounce the project to the followers of the preacher Nusret Hoja, he is murdered by one of his colleagues.

Enishte’s nephew Black, newly returned to Istanbul after twelve years absence, is asked to investigate. To complicate things, he revives an old passion for Enishte’s daughter Shekure, who is technically still married to a husband missing in battle, and who has other suitors.

We also hear from Esther, a Jewish pedlar who carries letters between Enishte and Shekure, Orhan, Shekure’s son, and the subjects of the illustrated book , a dog, a gold coin, a horse, Satan, and so forth, given voice by a storyteller in a coffeehouse. And the murderer and his victims speak the former without revealing his identity and the latter as spirits.

The paintings stand not as themselves but strictly as illustrations of text. The style the sultan’s artists are surreptitiously instructed to adopt, on the other hand, is that of the Italian Renaissance. Figures are individual, portraits are of specific people, and even trees and dogs are particulars. These paintings are not illustrations; they stand as works of art in their own right.

Each chapter of the novel has a different narrator, and usually there are thematic and chronological connections between chapters. In addition, unexpected voices are used, such as the corpse of the murdered, a coin, Satan, two dervishes, and the color red. Each of these “unusual” narrators is contributed by specific characters, which detail the philosophical system of 16th century Istanbul. The novel blends mystery, romance, and philosophical puzzles, illustrating the reign of Ottoman Sultan Murat III during nine snowy winter days in 1591.

My Name is Red has some surprising twists and turns, powering a readily engaging plot; as an historical novel, it’s setting in late sixteenth century Istanbul is convincingly detailed and as a novel it offers some memorable characters and complex relationships.

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