Review: My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk has been on my list of writers to sample for a while. I started with My Name Is Red because its focus on illuminated manuscripts appealed to me. I disregarded the reviews which suggested this is not the ‘best’ place to start with Pamuk. Alas, I was cocky. I thought my knowledge of history, memories of Istanbul, and hours spent copying/painting manuscripts would give me a leg up. They didn’t. I’ve read books set in unfamiliar cultures before, but My Name Is Red feels truly foreign and reminiscent of that moment in Istanbul when I realized Turkish is a tricky language. But instead of squinting at signs, I was scratching my head at Pamuk’s mythical, artistic, and philosophical diversions. In all cases, something was familiar, but I was miles away.

From the back cover:
At once a fiendishly devious mystery, a beguiling love story, and a brilliant symposium on the power of art, My Name Is Red is a transporting tale set amid the splendor and religious intrigue of sixteenth-century Istanbul.
The Sultan has commissioned a cadre of the most acclaimed artists in the land to create a great book celebrating the glories of his realm. Their task: to illuminate the work in the European style. But because figurative art can be deemed an affront to Islam, this commission is a dangerous proposition indeed. And when one of the chosen miniaturists disappears, the only clue to the mystery lies in the half-finished illuminations themselves. Part fantasy and part philosophical puzzle, My Name Is Red is a kaleidoscope journey into the intersection of art, religion, love, sex, and power.

There are scenes in this book that don’t require outside knowledge to appreciate. The story is told from a rotating set of perspectives that includes a corpse, dog, gold coin, and various illustrations. Chapters are titled “I Am a Corpse,” “I Am Called Black,” “I Am a Dog,” “I Will Be Called a Murderer,” and so on. The language/tone is regulated so that even reading the perspective of the murdered man and the murderer isn’t enough for a reader to sniff out the guilty party. There are particularly brilliant moments when the perspective shifts within a scene to allow multiple characters to comment in the moment rather than through retrospectives. There’s something cinematic about this: I imagine a camera moving around a room, changing views, zooming in, then panning out. When drawings or props speak, they offer new angles on their owners so everyone is seen inside and out, even if they’re alone. A favorite section is narrated by a gold coin and begins grandly:

Behold! I am a twenty-two-carat Ottoman Sultani gold coin and I bear the glorious insignia of His Excellency Our Sultan, Refuge of the World. … Hello, hello, greetings to all the master artists and assorted guests. Your eyes widen as you behold my glimmer, you thrill as I shimmer in the light of the oil lamp, and finally you bristle with envy at my owner. (102)

But gives way to a woeful confession:

All right then, I confess. I’m not a genuine twenty-two-carat Ottoman Sultani gold coin minted at the Chemberlitash Mint. I’m counterfeit. They made me in Venice using adulturated gold and brought me here, passing me off as twenty-two-carat Ottoman gold. Your sympathy and understanding are much obliged. (103)

This gold coin—with its humble secret, grand tales of being passed through the streets of Istanbul, and fear of being hoarded in a jar—has more (and better) ‘character’ development than human characters in crummy novels.

I enjoy this kind of diversion because the coin’s journey produced memorable descriptions of the people and city. Other meanderings have less obvious pay-offs. Pamuk includes a fair amount of myths and stories. Some read like Aesop’s fables, but the morals given at their close will not be familiar to western audiences. They take time from a cleverly built whodunnit, but their thematic framework illuminates the main action. My Name Is Red is plainly written for a Turkish audience (and it’s written in Turkish), but these stories allow it to be intelligible to a western audience as well.

The philosophy and mystery are great, but the love triangle is a shaky business. The woman, Shekure, must choose between her brother-in-law whom she dislikes (her husband is missing, presumed dead) and her old flame. She’s clearly written by a man and I had a hard time taking her seriously. Also strange is the fact that Shekure’s two children are named Shevket and Orhan. Shevket is the name of Orhan Pamuk’s older brother in real life, Shekure is the name of his mother, and Orhan is his own first name. Does this mean something? So glad to be out of school—this is the kind of thing that would require an essay on my least favorite subject: authorial intent.

(“What does this mean?” is the theme of this review by the way.)

Looking at the back cover now, I see the mystery is given little mention next to the talk of art. This book is more easily sold to a philosopher/artist/historian than someone looking for a cerebral mystery to take to the beach (where I read a portion). As such, it’s hard to summarize, but if you’re into these subjects and have time to read slowly and carefully, I expect you’ll be impressed by My Name Is Red.

Overall: 4.2 (out of 5.0) This book was more difficult than expected and I suspect it was largely wasted on me, but even I can see the tremendous writing skill. The balance of voices is extraordinary and, even though the mystery is a much smaller element than I wanted, the diversions were thoughtfully and beautifully phrased (if not well-paced).

Translation: Help me find another book by Pamuk. He’s plainly worth reading, but I’m not sure this was the one for me.

11 thoughts on “Review: My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk”

  1. This was my first read of Pamuk and I struggled with it. I then read Snow, which was much more my kind of book and I recommend it, The Museum of Innocence drove me cray with its repetition and length despite being well written, and ‘Istanbul’ is probably my favourite because I read it just after visiting that city – although my visit and impressions were a lot more upbeat than Pamuk’s, which are rather melancholic. Do try another anyway.

    1. Thanks for the recommendations! I think Istanbul will be an interesting read after My Name Is Red because it sounds like it’s written in a radically different style. It sounds like it’s rooted in the modern era, even as it looks back through history.
      My favorite sections of My Name Is Red were the ones in which Pamuk stepped away from metaphor/philosophy and created something that felt tangible. HIs writing is so strong that I was amazed at how easy it was to envision a world so foreign to me.

  2. Like you and Claire I started with My Name Is Red and loved it. From there I liked Snow but more than it, I loved the Museum of Innocence!!! I loved its obsessional love, it’s edgy feel of fascination that is almost overpowering but not quite and I LOVED that repetition!!! But if you’re looking for where to next I’d recommend his most recent book ‘A Strangeness In My Mind’ about a Boza seller in Istanbul – its brilliantly written and the city of Istanbul absolutely leaps off the page throughout!

    1. Lol–now I’m torn on The Museum of Innocence since there’s now one excited vote and one cautionary vote! 🙂 It’s easy to think of repetitive books I’ve loved, but also some I’ve loathed. On the upside, they’re very skimmable when they take a turn towards redundancy. I have a terrible habit of missing the one relevant sentence when I skip though…
      A Strangeness in My Mind sounds very good. That’s actually the first Pamuk book I ran across, but the mystery aspect of My Name Is Red won me over since I’ve been on a mystery kick these last couple months. Thanks for the recommendations! Pamuk writes so beautifully that I can’t wait to read his others.

  3. I’m glad I’m not the only one who struggled with this book! I started off totally in awe, ended in awe, but had a tough time in between. The concept, the language, the descriptions were fascinating though. I will one day revisit this author…

    1. Me too! I read it over a period of months and set a date for this review just to give myself a deadline. Reading it in stops/starts made it easier to appreciate the writing since I could set it down anytime I felt overwhelmed or impatient. It feels strange to be simultaneously impressed by an author yet unable to read more than a few chapters at time.

  4. I am lucky that I have been able to read Orhan Pamuk both in Turkish and in English (superb translations by Maureen Freely). He is an incredible writer. I agree that at times reading his books may seem strenuous ( in a good way), but I laso feel that the reward one feels at the end makes it all worthwhile. One ends up being enriched from the experience.
    After reading The Museum of Innocence ( an easier read than the My Name is Red mentioned widely here which I truly loved but could only read in bouts) my husband and I actually travelled to Istanbul to visit the museum. Seeing the objects described in the book, an amazing display of more than 4200 cigarette butts, Kemal’s room, Fusun’s dress gave me goose bumps. I was so overwhelmed that I actually became emotional. It really was an amazing experience!
    A Strangeness in My Mind is my favourite. He wrote another book after this one called The woman with Red Hair ( equally good)but as far as I know it hasn ,t been translated into English yet.

    1. How wonderful! Do think much is lost in the translations of Pamuk’s work? Does Freely really get the same voice and tone as the Turkish original? There were so many voices in My Name Is Read that it couldn’t have been easy to write or translate!

      The Museum of Innocence is definitely on my list to read. I think A Strangeness in My Mind will probably be the last one I pick up… I like working up to an author’s “best” and it’s the one that most appeals to me. I feel like I should get a better understanding of his writing style and pacing before reading it to have more appreciation for it. 🙂

      1. That’s exactly what I was thinking when I read My name is Red. It must have been a very difficult book to write. I was curious to know how long it took him to finish the book.Then I came across one of his lesser known books ” Manzaradan Parcalar” literally translated as “Fragments of the View”an autobiographical account of his life and his books. (I hope it will get translated one day ) There is a chapter in which he says that it took him years to formulate the story in his head and to carry out the background research and four years of actively writing it. He delightfully describes the day he finally finished the book and went out and treated himself to two expensive shirts and a not so expensive chicken doner kebab I thought I will share that with you.
        Happy reading!

        1. Four years of active writing is quite a lot. No wonder My Name Is Read is so intricate! I hope this book is translated some day. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  5. You should read ‘a strangeness in my mind’. Its known as Orhans love letter to Istanbul and after you’ve read it, you’ll soon see why. It’s such a beautiful and nostalgic love story. It was the first book I read by him, and now I am obsessed with orhan pamuk.

    I’ve also read my name is red, and I too, am not sure I completely got it. I might give it another go after reading your review. There was a clever riddle in there somewhere.
    I wish I knew about the culture and history.

    Please check out my review on ‘the White Castle.’ It’s not like his other books. Firstly, it’s not the mammoth size of his other books, and secondly it doesn’t have that hopelessly romantic feel like his other books. However it’s really clever and witty and just shines with brilliance.

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