Review: My Name Is Red

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 modern and/or 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. One proof of this leaps to mind, but I expect it would get this post flagged…. If you read this book, you’ll know the line. 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 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.