My Name is Red is a novel unlike any written in English, it should impress and reward every thoughtful reader. Orhan Pamuk’s genius lies in his talent for philosophic thought and ability to depict a culture of customs and ideas utterly foreign to the Western imagination.
With Pamuk’s words as a guide, even the defunct and unusually foreign realm of Ottoman court painters in the late sixteenth century becomes vivid and intellectually poignant.
Filmmaker Sonal Jain, currently reading the book, says, “The book is set like a thriller opening with a murder with the murdered man telling us about it from the afterlife. It is not a regular murder mystery.”
The novel opens to the disembodied voice of the murdered court miniaturist Elegant Effendi, one of a group of artists that decorated illuminated manuscripts for their Sultan, as he laments his fate and demands retribution upon his treacherous killer.
Quickly, this crime reveals an elaborate and troubling conflict surrounding a secret manuscript whose possible heretical content has caused friction among the various miniaturists working on it. This infighting culminates in Elegant’s murder. Disturbingly, the culprit who stole Elegant’s life appears to be one of his fellow miniaturists still working secretly on the clandestine document.
Instead of venturing down the heavily beaten path of murder mystery, however, Pamuk continues a measured and creative journey deeper into various lives within the Ottoman Empire. Additional characters emerge and their lives and worries enliven the story and introduce a host of new considerations for the novel.
There is the unorthodox love story between the gorgeous Shekure and her cousin, the wandering Black. There is the message-passing Jewish fabric seller, Esther, who continually arranges marriages between others. There is Master Ossman, the head of the Sultan’s miniaturist workshop, with his contemplations about the painfully temporal existence of an artist constantly striving for immortality through his work.
There is the nameless storyteller in the illegal coffee shop whose tales of personified pictures are alternately lewd and frighteningly incisive. There is even the self-torturing murderer of Elegant Effendi, to whose painful inner dialogue the reader is periodically privy.
Among this large and various cast of characters and issues, communication is a complex art. For instance, there is no omniscient third-person narrator. Instead, each chapter has its own personal narrator. And thus the story is assembled through the thoughts and impressions of the characters, in the same manner as William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.
In addition, the book is never clear on the conflict surrounding the Sultan’s secret book. The friction that the infamous manuscript causes is real enough to result in multiple murders, but its true religious threat is never actually confirmed.
These expressions of the nebulous nature of human society are ingenious and probably the greatest strength of the novel; Pamuk never forces some direct and simple truth upon the reader but leaves the complexity of reality very much alive within his imagined realm.
Even communication between characters is obscured by various means. The lovers Black and Shekure, who first meet face-to-face only after more than 150 pages, communicate in half-sincere notes passed along by a strange Jewish fabric vendor named Esther. The language of the lovers expresses well the wonderful lack of communication between them.
But the lovers are not the only characters with communication difficulties. The miniaturists also experience a sort of inability to communicate with one another but here the impeding factors are things like pride and jealousy. And perhaps the character who experiences the greatest trouble expressing himself is the lunatic who took Elegant’s life.
The magic of this novel does not only reside in what it refrains from doing, but also in something that it accomplishes with flourish. After the plot evolves into a sleuth-like search for the homicidal miniaturist, an elaborate discussion of the philosophy of miniaturist art from the late sixteenth century pervades the book’s subsequent discussions.
Somehow, even a topic as potentially soporific as the theory of Islamic miniaturist art supplies wonderful fodder for an engaging, intellectual novel.
What Pamuk has created in this novel is a wholly unique literary encounter. “What is gripping about the book is the multiple points of views offered as the story is being told from the point of view of the murdered man, the murder, the lovers, Black and Shekure, and the illustrators but also by the illustrated tree who declares that it is lonely because it fell out of the book of which it was supposed to be a part, a coin and the colour red,” says Jain.
“It is a wonderful book. I would like to recommend it to everyone,” she adds.
Reading suggestions for the week:
1. The Book of Chocolate Saints
by Jeet Thayil
2. The Nine-Chambered Heart
by Janice Pariat