My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk
Since the road leading to the harbour was near, I succumbed to the Devil’s temptation, and was overcome by the excitement of seeing the arches of the workshop building where I’d spent a quarter century. This was how I ended up tracing the path that I’d take as an apprentice following Master Osman: down Archer’s Street which smelled dizzyingly of linden blossoms in the spring, past the bakery where my master would buy round meat pasties, up the hill lined with beggars and quince and chestnut trees, past the closed shutters of the new market and the barber whom my master greeted each morning, alongside the empty field where acrobats would set up their tents in summer and perform, in front of the foul-smelling rooming houses for bachelors, beneath moldy-smelling Byzantine arches, before Ibrahim Pasha’s palace and the column made up of three coiling snakes, which I’d drawn hundreds of times, past the plane tree, which we depicted a different way each time, emerging into the Hippodrome and under the chestnut and mulberry trees wherein sparrows and magpies alighted and chirped madly in the mornings.
My Name Is Red is a remarkable novel from many points of view. It is told through the first-person accounts of around twenty different characters, not all of them human. Although it is, undeniably, a historical mystery novel, together with a murderer and victims and a charismatic detective, it is unlikely to appeal to those readers who, we are told, flock to that genre for their usual reading fare.
And it is, primarily, a novel about art. Set in sixteenth century Istanbul around a community of miniaturists, it concerns itself with the nature of blindness and the influences of Western painters and ideology on traditional Islamic illustration. Pamuk is more interested in form and style and the relationship of art to morality and society and religion, than he is in the twists and turns in his plot. Though the setting of time and place is never less than convincing, and this reader found the narrative totally fascinating.
The group of miniaturists are concerned with heresy? Islam has taken a stand against figuration in general and scorns the West’s preoccupation with the portrait, with the signing of paintings, and with the whole notion of individual style. Miniatures of exempted from this because they merely decorate the text and thereby avoid any iconic standing.
The introduction of perspective into Western painting brings up the possibility that a mosque far off would be smaller than a man, or his dog, close up. With perspective, people and things weren’t depicted according to their importance in Allah’s mind but as they appeared to the naked eye.
Therefore, a murder is committed. Of course.
But for me, the most endearing strand of the novel is the love story between Black and Shekure. He is passion incarnate. She is beguiling.
My Name Is Red is a rare thing in which Western readers are given an invaluable glimpse into the everyday Islamic world and mind.