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My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red.

I, Satan. I am fond of the smell of red peppers frying in olive oil, rain falling into a calm sea at dawn, the unexpected appearance of a woman at an open window, silences, thought and patience…Of course because I’m the one speaking, you’re already prepared to believe the exact opposite of what I say. But you’re smart enough to sense that the opposite of what I say is not always true.

We don’t look for smiles in pictures of bliss, but rather, for the happiness in life itself. Painters know this, but this is precisely what they cannot depict. That’s why they substitute the joy of seeing for hte joy of life.

For the sake of a delightful and convincing story, there isn’t a lie Orhan wouldn’t deign to tell.

In the closing years of the sixteenth century, the Sultan has instructed Enishte Effendi to create a fantastic book that will, in the European perspective style, demonstrate the power of the Ottoman realm. To create this book, the master miniaturists from the imperial workshops have retreated into the privacy of their own homes to work on the individual images, which fuels the rumors that some or all of the illustrations will be an affront to Islam. One of the illustrators working on the manuscript is brutally murdered and dumped into a well at the same time as Black, Enishte’s nephew, returns to Istanbul after an absence of twelve years.

Work continues on the manuscript even as the search for the murderer commences. Black is an outsider to the entire process and has an ulterior motive: to rekindle his childhood romance with Enishte’s daughter, Shekure, a widowed mother of two whose husband has never been confirmed dead, but who has moved back in with her father because her husband’s brother dangerously lusts after her. What ensues is a beguiling tale that explores the nature of art and reality, love, lust, violence and sacrilege and, as with all of Pamuk’s work (at least those books I’ve read) the Turkish anxiety about sitting at a crossroads between East and West. Black pursues Shekure, Shekure demurs out of her own reluctance, fear for her children, and respect for her father who she doesn’t want to leave. Black interviews the other master miniaturists, the murdered (“I Will be Called a Murderer”) hides his identity, and Hasan, the brother-in-law schemes to get Shekure back.

Questions loom large in My Name is Red. Is perspectivist style artwork an affront to Islam? Ought art reflect objects as seen by Allah or as seen by the artist? Is “style” a defect? What determines the greatness of an artist, aesthetic judgement or accumulation of wealth? Can truth, whether or textual, be captured on a page? What is real? And on and on.

The appropriate place to begin this part of the review (one of the fourth opening line) is a discussion of the narrator. Pamuk gives the impression that there is a storyteller who takes on the multitude of viewpoints while telling the story, as in mimicry of a storyteller in a coffee shop. That storyteller is Orhan, blurring the line between Pamuk himself and Shekure’s younger son. In neither case is there a narrative frame for the story. Instead, the book contains just the complete story, whirling from character to character, always in a first-person limited viewpoint and sometimes switching perspective within a single scene. But these viewpoints are not limited to people, as one character has two distinct personae and the story includes narration from a picture of a horse, a corpse, a gold coin, a picture of a tree, and Satan speaking through a picture of Satan.

The end product is a multifaceted tale that forms a uniform whole and a story where each narrator is cast from an unseen storyteller, confident in its own authority, but in such a way that it is clear that the reality humans have access to is subjective based on one’s own perspective, crafted as that is by whim, desire, and opportunity. Truth belongs to Allah; meaning is the essence of truth, but may have little bearing on reality.

I loved My Name is Red, and it is clearly written by the same author as Snow, which I count among my favorite novels, though one of the common complaints of the latter is that it is boring. This book is a bit more lively than Snow and the format of the novel gives the illusion that the story moves along quickly even as Pamuk draws the reader into his web of questions.

Next up is Jim Harrison’s The Raw and the Cooked, collected essays of a foodie and a writer.