My Name Is Red

by JDP

This difficult and rich novel craftily melds narrative techniques as disparate as the Eastern and European cultures that serve as its substance; there is enough murder, melodrama, and mendacity, however, to ensure that technical considerations do not come at the cost of good storytelling.

Orhan Pamuk / Turkish / 1998 / 452 pages
Translated from the Turkish by Erdag Göknar

If one were to compose a narrative dealing with the collision of cultures, then surely the city of Istanbul would be its ideal setting. At various points the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires, Istanbul has amalgamated an impressively diverse range of cultural influences. Situated geographically not only in Europe (to the west of the Bosphorus River), but also Asia (to the river’s east), this metropolis serves as the current seat of government for the country of Turkey, a quasi-Middle Eastern state that in contemporary times has struggled with its secularized military, religious citizenry, and aspirations to EU membership. Orhan Pamuk’s excellent novel, My Name Is Red, explores the contours of this identity crisis through the prism of an Ottoman sultan’s team of manuscript illustrators, or “miniaturists.” The lessons therein, however, are as timely now as they were in the 1500s.

The plot is simple enough. Without the convenience of the printing press, sultans in the Ottoman Empire made resort to handprinted manuscripts, the texts of which were often accompanied by illustrations hemmed into the margins of the pages in miniature scale. These labor-intensive enterprises required entire teams of miniaturists that would work for weeks at a time to illustrate an entire book and within these teams of illustrators, a formalized guildsmen structure dictated which of them were masters, assistants, etc. Toward the end of the Ottoman Empire, Islamic miniaturists were conflicted over the merits of encroaching imagery from the “Franks” (Europeans). Some argued that the realism inherent in the Franks’ illustrations bordered on idolatry, a sin in the eyes of Allah. Others argued that Turkish illustrators had a great deal to learn from imitating the Frankish masters rather then their own luminaries. The debate was charged both aesthetically and religiously.

My Name Is Red focuses on the events surrounding the composition of a secret manuscript commissioned by the holy sultan himself. Rejecting the traditional guild framework, the sultan has instead assembled a team under the guidance of a rogue miniaturist — Enishte Effendi — who coerces his individual illustrators to work in isolation from one another, thereby breeding confusion, jealousy, and fear of the book’s purpose. The manuscript itself is intended to synthesize Ottoman and Frankish techniques and will potentially be gifted to European emissaries as a sign of the sultan’s power and cosmopolitanism (relatively speaking, of course). The illustrators quibble amongst one another and erratic street prophets threaten to mobilize gangs of thugs to eradicate from the streets of Istanbul anything smacking of the infidels’ influence. Additionally, the more formal guildsmen, having been circumvented in the book’s composition, are bitter to the core. You can see why there is a lot of finger pointing when the team’s foremost miniaturist turns up dead.

Pamuk, thankfully, is not content with a straightforward murder mystery. We know this from the opening chapter where the first words of the narrative come out of the mouth of a mutilated corpse lying frozen in the bottom of a well (“I Am A Corpse”). As if this wasn’t disorienting enough, each chapter switches perspective, always maintaining the first-person narrative, but occasionally masking the identity of the speaker. Some chapters, for example, are straightforwardly titled (“I Am Called Black” where we are aware that the character speaking is, indeed, named Black) while others are simply descriptions of people whose identity we, as readers, would love to find out (“I Will Be Called A Murderer”). Certain chapters also feature drawings that speak to us as personified trees, horses, gold coins, and a jar of red ink. As it turns out, these seemingly inane chapters constitute an interesting subplot surrounding a coffeehouse that all of the miniaturists frequent after work. Each of the main characters are given at least a handful of chapters in which to speak, but the majority of the novel is told through the perspective of Black, Enishte Effendi’s nephew, and Shekure, his daughter.

Black returns to Istanbul after a twelve-year absence on the eve of the illustrator’s murder. His frantic uncle, fearing the imminent demise of his secret book project, enlists his help in sleuthing through the city’s streets to unearth which of the many suspects is the guilty party. Black is a hapless blockhead who blunders his way through the entire novel, passing jumbled messages in between powerful interests and helplessly pursuing his uncle’s daughter’s hand in marriage. Shekure, for her part, plays very little substantive role in the events that unfold, but provides an important and fascinating female perspective in a world dominated by capricious and over-intellectualized males. Rather important figures whose influences substantially drive the motivations of the main characters (such as the ultra orthodox preacher Nusret Hojah as well as the sultan himself) are never given their own opportunities at the first-person. Because of this, the book’s meta-narrative is somewhat akin to limited omniscience: it seems as if Pamuk, as the author, can totally craft the inner workings of a character at his leisure, but this capacity is limited only to a subset of Istanbul’s inhabitants.

The authorial conceits hardly stop there. The new age technique of cycling through many character’s perspectives a chapter at a time is situated in a system of elaborate dialogues on the merits of artistry, the tenants of Islam, and the arbitration between cultures. Furthermore, many of these insights come in the form of encapsulated parables or historical anecdotes that the characters swap back and forth like baseball cards. What results is a very strange synthesis: a cycling first-person narrative ensconced within a more repetitive, measured style similar to that which would emerge from an oral tradition. Just as Homer makes endless reference to “Dawn of the rosy fingers” in The Odyssey as he begins each new anecdote, so too do Pamuk’s characters resort to repeating the same story of Hüsrev and Shirin over and over (and over) again. To this end a strange tension permeates the book where we are both energized by the novelty of cycling perspectives and also enervated by endless passages of repetitive dialogue and description.

This complicates the task of unearthing the murderer. Because he is given many dozens of pages of first-person narration before his identity is revealed and because we know well ahead of time that the murderer is right under our noses interacting with other characters throughout the novel, we are forced to read every page rather closely in an honest attempt to out-sleuth Black. Perhaps if the murderer, in making some characteristic comment in his first-person accounts, accidentally reveals some identifying clue, then we’ll be able to determine his name. Contrast the closeness with which we must read these sections to the longer passages describing the contents of libraries where — literally — we can thumb through five or six pages without losing much in the way of content. This juxtaposition gets old after a while. The book runs out of steam at the halfway mark and it then languishes through another 100 pages before taking off again in the closing chapters. From my perspective, this delayed reward is worth the effort, but I would hesitate to recommend this novel to too broad an audience.

In the end, Pamuk pulls off a feat that is a personal favorite of mine: the implication of the reader in the action of the novel. Many of the characters come off as unreliable narrators and oftentimes their accounts are addressed to you, the reader. The characters infer different things about your disposition and background and make an effort to appeal to your sensibilities in different ways. Although each chapter is clearly “authored” by a character, it is not immediately clear who the “author” of the meta-narrative itself may be. In this way, a terrible curiosity hangs over the novel: for a book that is so honest about being a written account assembled from the viewpoints of many people, it is disturbingly quiet about who (or what) gathered all of these accounts and bound them together as My Name Is Red. I hesitate to reveal too much about the answer to this question, but I will say that, long after the plot has spun itself out, Pamuk buries a surprise in the final lines of the book that prompts you to reconsider the structure of everything you’ve read.

Rating: 6 / 10

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