My Name is Red

Orhan Pamuk

translated from the Turkish by Erdag M. Göknar
Faber & Faber 2001
A book review by Danny Yee © 2002
The Sultan has commissioned an illustrated book to demonstrate his power to the Venetian Doge. Because it will employ controversial aspects of the Frankish style, head illustrator Osman has been bypassed and the project given to Enishte, who coordinates miniaturists nicknamed Elegant, Stork, Olive, and Butterfly. But when Elegant suspects the orthodoxy of the final page and threatens to denounce the project to the followers of the preacher Nusret Hoja, he is murdered by one of his colleagues. Enishte's nephew Black, newly returned to Istanbul after twelve years absence, is asked to investigate. To complicate things, he revives an old passion for Enishte's daughter Shekure, who is technically still married to a husband missing in battle, and who has other suitors.

These are just the most prominent of the twenty characters from whose first-person perspectives My Name is Red is told. We also hear from Esther, a Jewish pedlar who carries letters between Enishte and Shekure, Orhan, Shekure's son, and the subjects of the illustrated book — a dog, a gold coin, a horse, Satan, and so forth — given voice by a storyteller in a coffeehouse. And the murderer and his victims speak, the former without revealing his identity and the latter as spirits.

As a mystery and a reworked folktale, My Name is Red has some surprising twists and turns, powering a readily engaging plot; as a historical novel, its setting in late sixteenth century Istanbul is convincingly detailed; and as a novel it offers some memorable characters and complex relationships. But what is most notable about My Name is Red is the extent to which it is a novel about art, indeed almost a study of Islamic illustration. It contains descriptions of paintings, some of which verge on prose poems. It is full of stories about the great miniaturists and their history, going back to Bihzad and the Chinese influences brought by the Mongols. And it is riddled with discussions and debates about form and style, the relationship of art to morality and society and religion, the effects of Western ideas, the future of Ottoman illumination, and the significance of blindness.

This is all interwoven with the plot, the setting, and the characters. When Black questions the three surviving miniaturists, for example, he does so by asking them questions about style, to which they respond with short tales about great miniaturists. Osman and Black spend three nights in the Sultan's Treasury, searching the collected books for stylistic clues that will identify the murderer.

"We saw pictures of war and death, each more frightening and more expertly done than the next: Rüstem together with Shah Mazenderam, Rüstem attacking Afrasiyab's army; and Rüstem, disguised in armor, a mysterious and unidentified hero warrior ... In another album we saw dismembered corpses, daggers drenched in red blood, sorrowful soldiers in whose eyes the light of death gleamed and warriors cutting each other down like reeds, as fabled armies, which we could not name, clashed mercilessly. Master Osman — for who knows how many thousandth time — looked upon Hüsrev spying on Shirin bathing in a lake by moonlight, upon the lovers Leyla and Mejnun fainting as they beheld each other after an extended separation, and a spirited picture, all aflutter with birds, trees and flowers, of Salaman and Absal as they fled the entire world and lived together on an isle of bliss."
And many of the characters view the world as painters, sometimes telling their stories by describing the illustrations a miniaturist might paint to accompany them.
"The subsequent illustration, that is, the fourth, ought to depict the proxy recording the divorce in the ledger, unleashing obedient armies of black-ink letters, before presenting me with the document declaring that my Shekure is now a widow and there is no obstacle to her immediate remarriage."

A map and a historical chronology are provided, covering places and events that were either important in the history of Islamic art or in the legends and folktales illustrated. Apart from an elegant cover, however, My Name is Red has no illustrations — and an extensive illustrated history of Islamic art would be necessary to do it justice!

It was apparently a hit in Turkey, but it is an unlikely bestseller — it is slow moving in places and not recommended for those who want a straightforward historical mystery after the fashion of Ellis Peters or Lindsey Davis. For anyone either interested in Islamic art or willing to be drawn into it, however, Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red offers immersion in a genuinely foreign world, one in which art and history are fundamental.

September 2002

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%T My Name is Red
%A Pamuk, Orhan
%M Turkish
%F Göknar, Erdag M.
%I Faber & Faber
%D 2001 [1998]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0571200478
%P 417pp