52 Weeks of Literature, Week Two: “My Name is Red” by Orhan Pamuk

Turkish Nobel literature laureate Orhan

Representative excerpt: [From the perspective of a counterfeit gold coin] “…let me list for you the various things I might be exchanged for: the foot of a young and beautiful slave girl, which amounts to about one-fiftieth of her person; a good-quality walnut-handled barber’s mirror, edges inlaid with bone; a well-painted chest of drawers decorates with sunburst designs and silver leaf worth ninety silver pieces; 120 fresh loaves of bread; a grave site and coffins for three; a silver armband; one-tenth of a horse; the legs of an old and fat concubine; one buffalo calf; two high-quality pieces of china; the monthly wage of Persian miniaturist Mehmet the Dervish of Tabriz and the majority of those of his like who work in Our Sultan’s workshop; one good hunting falcon with cage; ten jugs of Panayot’s wine; a heavenly hour with Mahmut, one of those young boys world-renowned for his beauty, and many other opportunities too numerous to specify.” (pp. 102-3, trans. Erdağ M. Göknar)

Retro will always be in vogue. Nostalgia sells. The desire to go back in time, resurrect the past and ape the fashions of eras long gone is in all of us. The present in this way is a concave mirror, reflecting and shining a light on previous generations to better define itself while itself remaining nebulous, and while the future remains a total blank. Do we really ever know our own zeitgeist—the styles and auras that make our place and time unique—until some decades later? How exactly should we define the 2010s, since we are already halfway through them? We might answer that we’ve assembled the 2010s from the detritus of the still-opaque ‘00s, which was itself crafted out of the fragments of the now-clearer 1990s, etc. From a historiographical perspective, it helps that the Old and New Millennia can be cleanly differentiated by 9/11—until we remember that Osama bin Laden was of course one of the most serious geopolitical threats of the ‘90s. Lost in the present, we retreat to the past and seek answers from it. My Name is Red, the novel that (along with Snow) propelled the Turkish postmodernist Orhan Pamuk to his 2006 Nobel triumph, draws much of its power from the genres and forms of yore. Parables, fables, poetry, Quran interpretations, a traditional love story and a classic murder mystery all amass into one hodgepodge in which they’re able to riff and commentate on each other and themselves. It looks innovative and challenging, but the ingredients are familiar. Pamuk brings back centuries-old modes of storytelling to bear on the present, to remind us of lessons we may have forgotten, to reintroduce perceptions new to us but well-known in history.

Written before and published in English around the time of 9/11, Red is well positioned to provide a discourse on Islam, as Turkey seems one of the few nations (Albania is another) able to compromise Islam with secularism and syncretism. Set in late-1500s Istanbul, it opens with the murder of one Ottoman miniaturist—an esteemed book illustrator—by another. Both are involved in the task of creating a series of miniatures celebrating the life and reign of their Sultan. This task is kept confidential, as it essentially demands several affronts to Islam such as idolatry and blasphemy. Small wonder it leads to bloodshed. The murder mystery itself is, in execution, the novel’s most egregious blemish: there are only three suspects, who are not as much characters as they are vessels for the narration of parables. Besides the killer—who is privileged to share his point-of-view in anonymity—the men are distinguished by themes, not by personalities. This makes the reader’s duty of trying to solve the murder a near-impossible sludge. Thankfully, the narrative’s other major component—its love story—is much more riveting. The one non-suspect miniaturist, Black, returns to Istanbul after a long exile with the intention of wedding his widowed cousin, Shekure, the daughter of his uncle and mentor, Enishte. This story and other subplots are paralleled neatly—like a single prism showing off a rainbow of color—with the Turkish legend of Hüsrev and Shirin, which is similar to the Greek legend of Oedipus in that Hüsrev is envied and slaughtered by his own son. Divisions are drawn across various generational lines; there are not just conflicts of old versus young, but also those of tradition versus innovation, and of the Quran versus free expression. Mired in this mess is the question of how the Sultan’s book will represent the Ottoman Empire to Europe and the world.

It’s heady stuff, sometimes to its own detriment. There are times when Pamuk is more interested in displaying his vast knowledge of Turkish history, mythology, art and literature than in getting on with the narrative—and this only serves to bring more attention to the tedious regimentation of the many meta-literary parables, most of which blend into and repeat each other. When he does push the story forward, it’s thrilling. His most profound literary choice is to distill that story between multiple perspectives, some of which I doubt any author has thought up before. The color red, the alleged gold coin from the quote above, Death more as a condition than as a figure, a young version of the author inserted conveniently into the text—all of these and more are endowed with their own voices and personas, which are both original and plausible. Such personifications give credence to Red’s most haunting theme—the fundamental Islamic concept that “the blind and the seeing are not equal,” namely that the capacity to see does not alone indicate sight. Herein, the miniaturists who aspire to greatness are necessarily impelled to become blind in old age, whether by intense visual labor or by deliberate injury, so as to let their artistic talents ossify and to perceive the unknowable as Allah does. To see in a spiritual sense sometimes does require forsaking the privilege of physical sight and of learning through viewing. Perhaps we fail to define our eras and our religious/spiritual beliefs because we rely too much on the present we can “see”, and too little on the past we cannot.

Grade: B+

Next week: I head home to New York to read Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

52 Weeks of Literature, Week Two: “My Name is Red” by Orhan Pamuk