Tuesday, March 6, 2012

My Name is Red, by Orhan Pamuk

Like Eco's The Name of the Rose, Pamuk's novel, about 16th-century illustrators ("miniaturists") in Istanbul working on a semi-secret project for the Ottoman sultan, uses a murder mystery and art to explore how religious belief shapes one's view of the world and one's role in the world—and, most importantly, how we tell stories about ourselves and others. Told in (mostly brief) first-person chapters that, like Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, even include the voices of the dead, the novel starts with a murder motivated by fear and envy. Though the murderer speaks, he doesn't identify himself; later, when he's given chapters from an identified point of view, he taunts us, afterwards, by how cleverly he's managed, even when providing his name, to conceal himself. Often, narrators directly address the reader, and the novel itself becomes a parallel to the illustrated book being constructed for the Sultan: it, too, has multiple artists; these artists, too, both conceal and reveal; the characters within are sometimes historical and sometimes invented; and perhaps the novel's actual author, too, has painted his own portrait within these pages as some sly illustrator seems to have done.

The Muslim world of the time is in a period of transition: though artists have been trained to see the world "as Allah sees it," not as they see it, the new "Frankish" style has begun to infect them, the style which is distinctly personal, which draws attention to the artist, and which incorporates, rather than established templates of portrayal, actual portraiture by which one may recognize living human beings. The issues surrounding this change drive most of the drama in the novel, though the book has another major plot that's related to all this: the return of Black, our presumptive hero, to his native city, where he hopes to finally marry the possibly widowed cousin who was, when last he was here, too young to wed. This romance, too, takes place in terms of the traditions of Islamic art, as it was initially sparked by reference to a famous tale and illustration—that of the lovely (and beloved by two men) Shirin. The twin plots of murder and marriage intertwine suspensefully, even though Pamuk often allows his characters to digress on religious and artistic matters (repetitively, it must be said). The book requires some work, but it's narratively and intellectually engaging, a great novel that raises questions any artist can appreciate, especially in our own era when one can sense the possible fading of written narrative to be replaced by the visual and filmic.

1 comment:

Calvin said...

Read this a few years ago. Enjoyed it, although I agree, especially as it went on, was more work to read.