The way Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk tells it, being an Islamic miniaturist in 16th-century Istanbul meant suppressing one’s individual artistic style, which would be a brazen affront to Allah. One had to paint, in the tradition of the East, the classic stories of battles won, lovers crossed; one had to suffer the sadistic beatings and deep kisses of the workshop’s master, who helped eliminate impertinent imperfection. The miniaturist aspired to blindness, “the crowning reward” for a life’s devotion to illuminating manuscripts, “a realm of bliss from which the devil and guilt are barred.” It was a time when the West began to infiltrate the East by way of the ink pot, when a brushstroke that suggested a perspective other than Allah’s or a dab of crimson that made real the face of a sultan was as good as blasphemous, punishable by death.
My Name Is Red is a breathless, philosophical whodunit set in 1591, when the brutal murder of Elegant Effendi, a gilder among the miniaturists, threatens to expose a blasphemy that has infected Master Osman’s Ottoman court painters. It is rumored that a secret book commissioned by the sultan pays homage to European artistic styles, which favored realistic portraiture over effacing identity in honor of Allah. For gold, and perhaps glory, four miniaturists, under the guidance of Uncle Enishte, the rival to Master Osman, have been painting it at night. Consumed by guilt, Elegant confesses one dark evening, inciting someone to bludgeon him. The clue to which miniaturist murdered him hinges upon the nostrils of a horse: In a drawing found on the dead man’s body, these nostrils displayed a distinct style.
Pamuk, a writer of intellectual thrillers and a sophisticated provocateur who raises questions about the things that matter—love, death, art, politics—has been compared to Garciá Márquez, Borges, Calvino, Nabokov, DeLillo. Pamuk, a leading novelist in his native Turkey and in Europe, has seen his reputation cross the Atlantic this last decade with English translations of The Black Book, The White Castle, and The New Life, all of which deal with the awkward, violent embrace between East and West, and with the enigma of identity. Secret books, smoldering romances, and missing people populate each novel, even as the historical settings shift from century to century.
In My Name Is Red, the story of the sultan’s secret book and the murder is told in the first person from the point of view of a dozen narrators, not all of them human. We hear from the corpse, the lovers and the murderer, a gold coin, the color red, and the delightful Esther, a Pooh bear of a woman who dips her fingers into the honey of gossip, delivering messages between lovers, using her street smarts to extort an extra gold piece for her troubles. As in Pamuk’s previous novels, the characters address the reader directly, cajoling and cornering us into being both ally and enemy, witness and judge. Pamuk, a classic postmodernist, immerses the reader deep into his tale, then yanks one from the reverie.
As the European Renaissance crosses Istanbul’s Bosporus strait, the coffeehouses are rife with sinful sentiments. Enishte says of the Venetian painting style that has captivated his mind, “[They want us] to know that simply existing in this world is a very special, very mysterious event. They’re attempting to terrify us with their unique faces, eyes, bearing and with their clothing whose every fold is defined by shadow.” Whispered and mocked, these Western notions lodge themselves in Istanbul during a period when the power of the Ottoman Empire is waning. Without being polemical, Pamuk makes vivid the angst that pervaded the eerie streets of his beloved Istanbul.
The entire novel rumbles and rolls, with Pamuk’s knowing and masterful hand tugging taut the suspense between narrations, then releasing lists of heroic stories, scenes from the Koran, famous depictions of horses, and crude ways to describe a man’s cock. In the wake of a hair-raising, grisly second murder, Pamuk acts the part of DJ, sampling historical vignettes and then skillfully and gracefully modulating the volume from high-pitched melodrama (“What I thought was my blood was red ink; what I thought was ink on his hands was my flowing blood. . . . Perhaps because I took no pleasure in looking into his bloodshot eyes, he struck my head once more”) to a gentle narration by the color red, which tells the reader where it likes to appear (“I embellished Ushak carpets, wall ornamentation, the combs of fighting cocks, pomegranates, the fruits of fabled lands, the mouth of Satan . . . blouses worn by stunning women with outstretched necks watching the street through open shutters, the sour-cherry eyes of bird statues made of sugar, the stockings of shepherds, the dawns described in legends and the corpses and wounds of thousands”).
My Name Is Red is Shakespearean in its grandeur—there are betrayals, ruses and farce, historical allusions, and an old man who blinds himself with a needle. Guilt thumps throughout like Poe’s telltale heart; righteous justification for murder seeps through in a most Raskolnikovian fashion. But Pamuk also takes the reader back and forth across the hazy and dangerous terrain where the Koran clashes with the Bible, where the angels of life and death wrestle into infinity.
The novel is delightfully sinful, guilty of blasphemy by 16th-century fundamentalist standards (if not 21st as well), what with its orgiastic coupling of men and boys, shrouded women with delectable bodies, and artists seeking to be artists with or without Allah. Pamuk’s writing is erudite and magically real, funny and sexy, terrifying and thrilling, always searching for the moment when the soul “escape[s] its mortal coil” and one is happily or heart-wrenchingly lifted out of this world.