My Name Is Red

My Name is Red by Orhan PamukOrhan Pamuk
Translated by Erdag M. Göknar
Knopf ($25.95)

by Eric J. Iannelli

In the wake of the September 11 atrocities, some booksellers have been eager to seize the prevailing fervour and stock their display windows with literature relating to Islam, Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda terrorist network, and the Taliban. While this is undoubtedly a means to a monetary end, it is also an admirable attempt to educate a public that until now has been content with only vague ideas about the second-largest religion in the world. Sadly, however, one particularly excellent work is often missing from these sales exhibits.

First published as Benim Adim Kirmiz nearly four years ago, My Name Is Red is Turkish author Orhan Pamuk's fourth novel to be published in English. Set in Istanbul during the late 16th century, a period of severe religious repression, its plot is rooted in Islamic history and custom, yet this does not limit the breadth of its potential readership. Much to the contrary, My Name Is Red addresses the sort of timeless, universal issues that make for superb literary fiction.

The opening chapter leads with the announcement, "I Am A Corpse," effectively luring the reader into a firsthand account of murder and the afterlife. As in the 1950 movie Sunset Boulevard, this is told by the victim himself, the gilder Master Elegant Effendi—but unlike the movie, narrative duties are also passed on to several major characters in the novel. We are introduced by turns to Black Effendi, recently returned to Istanbul after a period of self-exile; a mongrel dog, one of the remarkable comic asides; and the enchanting Shekure (a name etymologically related to our English word "sugar"), much-desired by more than one man. Even the anonymous murderer himself is given his say. Some of these personal accounts overlap. Others offer interesting clues, or perhaps fail to provide crucial details. In addition to demonstrating a deft authorial hand, this constant shift in perspective illustrates just one of Pamuk's larger themes: the role of art in society and religion, oft-disputed on account of its inherent subjectivity.

As the mysterious events before and after the tragedy develop, we find that Elegant Effendi has been at work on an important and highly circumspect book commissioned by Ottoman Sultan Murat III. He is only one of a handful of expert miniaturists who have been selected to realize the Sultan's masterwork, which, it is hoped, will incorporate and surpass the work of the Frankish masters. These "infidel" painters have adopted the practice of representational art, a style first encountered by the appointed head of these miniaturists, Enishte Effendi, on an ambassadorial trip to Venice. These Western artists do not render the essence of what they are painting—for instance, the idea of the perfect tree—but rather an exact likeness of the thing itself. Furthermore, the perspectival shift of representational art lowers the central focal point to the level of the artist himself, not as Allah would see it from the heavens. Therefore the Western style causes trouble on two counts. In terms of physical execution, it creates additional problems of dimension and painstaking detail. Ideologically, it runs entirely antithetical to the lessons of the Great Masters; that is, the Persian miniaturists who began and perfected the Islamic method of drawing.

The Sultan's book and the new style therein become an issue of gross debate among the more traditional Islamic miniaturists, agitating the internal dynamic of the coterie because it raises important questions among them about the very nature of their profession. Style, for one, is called into question. Is it a subtle display of individuality, and later a path to recognition and immortality? Or is it merely the intrusion of ego upon one's work? One character suggests that style is only an artist's accumulated imperfections, while another counters that it gives a personal depth to the work under scrutiny. Later we are confronted with the issue of artistic influence and imitation. A passage by "Butterfly," one of three nicknamed master miniaturists, demonstrates how convincing and nuanced these arguments can be:

"As long as the number of worthless artists motivated by money and fame instead of the pleasure of seeing and a belief in their craft, increases," I said, "we will continue to witness much more vulgarity and greed akin to this preoccupation with ‘style' and ‘signature.'" I made this introduction because this was the way it is done, not because I believed what I said. True ability and talent couldn't be corrupted even by the love of gold or fame. Furthermore, if truth be told, money and fame are the inalienable rights of the talented, as in my case, and only inspire us to greater feats.

By allowing his narrators to voice such diverse opinions, Pamuk enables the reader to sympathize with every viewpoint, even those with a less than noble worldview. (Incidentally, the chapters related by the coffee-house storyteller—from Satan's point of view, to name just one—are especially brilliant.) The most compelling arguments are to be found in a series of episodes early in the novel, in which the central characters relate a series of anecdotes designated Alif, Ba and Djim (later appearing as Alif, Lam and Mim). Via this layered dialectical approach, we come to see that art, much like life itself, is neither X nor Y, but a more ambiguous Z. Art is the combination of tradition and progress, vision and blindness—at once real and ideal, telluric and ethereal.

Well-crafted as it is, My Name Is Red is not without its shortcomings. The book has an implausible pace: In one day, for example, Black Effendi wins the heart of his beloved, conducts a series of bribes, sails across the Bosphorous, secures a divorce through an extensive trial, returns to a wedding with full procession, and goes about dressing and cleaning a corpse. He even manages to squeeze in a haircut. The cumulative events of this novel take place in the space of about one week, with a hastily drawn epilogue that rockets ahead decades into the future, marring an otherwise realistic tone and setting. Also, the revelation of the murderer is haphazard. Clues and hypotheses keep the reader merely curious rather than actively engaged; main suspects are left underdeveloped, their most distinguishing traits omitted. In the end, the reader is led to suppose that the killer's identity has been created—or possibly argued into being—rather than existing from the outset. This results in an awareness of an author at work, much like pulling back the curtain to reveal the puppeteer, limiting the enjoyment of a well-constructed ruse.

Much like its primary subject, My Name Is Red operates on many contrasting levels. In addition to an ingenious and engaging analysis of art, the edges of the story bleed into the categories of murder mystery, Islamic folklore, and historical novel. Thus metaphor builds upon metaphor, establishing an intricate dialogue within the text that speaks to the reader—made possible by the smooth and credible translation—as much as it speaks to itself. And for the benefit of those like myself who need a quick refresher course in Middle Eastern geography and historical highlights, there are appendices that feature a historical chronology and a map of the region.

If anything is to promote understanding between two cultures that often see the other as antithetical, it will be a work like My Name Is Red. Pamuk's clever ending, in which he identifies himself as the author, resembles an O. Henry twist as closely as it mimics a standard Islamic narrative device. Through a tale rich in the various shades of human existence and vivid historical detail, this book portrays the small gap between these two faiths more accurately than any current non-fiction account.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2001/2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001/2002