The last month has been a bit crazy, and it took me longer than I would have liked to finish Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red (1998, trans. from Turkish by Erdağ M. Göknar in 2001). This novel is one of those that have sat on my to-read shelf for a while, but I’m happy to have finally gotten around to it, and luckily it is a novel easy to come back to if you have to put it down after, say, reading the first half over the week of Thanksgiving.
My Name Is Red takes place at the end of the 16th century in Istanbul, where the Sultan has commissioned the creation of a secret book to give as a gift to the West. Amid speculation that the book is illustrated in a style offensive to Islam, one of the miniaturists is murdered. The book opens with this victim speaking from beyond the grave in a chapter titled “I am a Corpse,” and much of the rest of the book concerns the search for his murderer. The “detective,” albeit a somewhat unwilling and unqualified one, is Black Effendi, the nephew of the man in charge of the book’s creation. Black has returned after years of exile in the hope of marrying his cousin, Shekure, and his role in the search for the murderer is more about proving himself to his uncle, Shekure, and the authorities than it is about a desire for justice. Pamuk, like many other authors, takes up the mystery plot and modifies it to make his own literary concoction: Black’s love story and the mystery vie for prominence. The other play on the form lies in Pamuk’s shift in narrators between the chapters, including, as mentioned above, some chapters narrated by the dead, and others narrated by the murderer in a disguised voice.
These multiple voices and the combination of genres are, in many ways, what the novel is most about, as the situations involve extensive reflections and dialogues about the purposes of art. The novel offers a kind of political intrigue around the controversial nature of portraiture, with some factions in the novel opposing painting and illustration of any kind and others, the majority of the characters at the center of the novel, debating the proper role of art. The debate seems fairly simple at first glance: the established line is that illustration may only happen in the mannered style of the “great masters” of tradition, and that its goal is to portray the world as Allah sees it rather than as man sees it. On the opposite side are those who, under the influence of Western artists, have a growing interest in portraiture and realism, and who are thus condemned for privileging man’s perspective on the world over Allah’s, for disregarding tradition in favor of experimentation. But what is most fascinating as the novel goes on is that the distinctions between these opposed sides fall apart: not only do the artists painting in the new style have justifications for how their methods fit into a religious context and serve tradition, but the advocates of tradition themselves acknowledge that art has a history of change rather than a simple passing of tradition, sometimes giving the sense that the idea of tradition is itself just a rhetorical tactic. So many characters give their own slight variations on what they think terms like realism, style, and tradition mean that the novel reveals not so much that these two “sides” are the same thing but that they conflate a much more complicated debate where allies may not believe as similarly as they think and opponents may have a lot in common.
In all of this, the novel’s ideas and form are somewhat boilerplate poststructuralist and postmodernist of varieties that are very familiar by 1998. I think it might be fair to say that there is not a tremendous amount that is new here—although you have to reject the novel’s ideas outright if you uncritically privilege the new over the old without realizing that the new is often a matter of reproducing the old. I think I’ve seen comparisons of this book to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose in its adoption of the mystery plot and medieval religious context for pomo ends, and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone dismissed My Name Is Red as being too much the same thing. Nonetheless, as I read on I found myself thinking more and more how the pleasures offered by Pamuk’s novel vary from those of Eco’s, and I wound up valuing it on its own rather than as a way of reliving my enjoyment of the older book through a newer, lesser copy.