Saturday, February 23, 2008

My Name is Red, by Orhan Pamuk

My Name is Red” is many things at once: a love story, a murder mystery, a historical tale with parallels to modern times. In 1591, Black returns to Istanbul after twelve years abroad. The woman he loves, Shekure, is raising her two children alone after her husband failed to return from a military campaign. Charged by the Sultan to assemble an illuminated book using techniques borrowed from the Europeans, Black’s beloved Uncle has secretly assembled the finest group of miniaturists in the city. When one of them is murdered, love, art, philosophy and religion interplay in a tightly structured and complex novel of ideas, beliefs, and detective work.

Each chapter is devoted to the first-person point of view of a single character, including the murdered miniaturist and his murderer, other miniaturists, Black and Shekure, and the neighborhood match-maker; even the subjects of sketches used by a storyteller in a coffee shop get their say. This device allows Pamuk to tell the tale from many angles and to develop nuanced and distinctive characters. Black, for instance, has pined for Shekure for so long that his unrequited love propels and subsumes all his thoughts and actions:

“Maybe you’ve understood by now that for men like myself, that is, melancholy men for whom love, agony, happiness and misery are just excuses for maintaining eternal loneliness, life offers neither great joy nor great sadness.”

Black may be considered the primary character, but as in any good work of literature, plot and conflict do not revolve around a sole protagonist. The miniaturists themselves are central to the discussions of art and the reactions of their religious contemporaries; “My Name is Red” is thus, first and foremost, a political novel disguised as a historical mystery with art at center stage:

“An artist’s skill depends on carefully attending to the beauty of the present moment, taking everything down to the minutest detail seriously while, at the same time, stepping back from the world, which takes itself too seriously, and as if looking into a mirror, allowing for the distance and eloquence of a jest.”

The Koran forbids depicting Allah, and the miniaturists in “My Name is Red” are persecuted by fundamentalists who belief their illustrations are an affront to their faith. Pamuk's novels obliquely comment on current affairs, and the issues he writes about in “My Name is Red” are still contentious today. It isn’t any wonder that Pamuk's life has been threatened or that the Turkish government recently arrested a group of men plotting to kill him.

Despite the risk of didacticism in the novel and the threat of persecution in real life, Pamuk still pulls off a great story within a story. Black's courtship of Shekure isn't as radiant as Ka's courtship of Ipek in "Snow," and the philosophical discussions and historical analysis of Islamic art are sometimes repetitive and tend to slow the action, but in the end, “My Name is Red” successfully integrates multiple strands of storytelling into an illuminating and colorfully woven tapestry of art, history, and the human condition. In Pamuk's world, the past and the present are eerily similar - and that's both comforting and sad at the same time.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Twentieth-Century German Poetry, by Michael Hofmann (ed).

I’m reading this now, and want to review it even before I’ve finished it. Can you ever really finish an anthology of poetry, anyway?

Michael Hofmann has selected a wide and diverse pool of poets from the last century of German verse. Included are many poets known, at least by name, to English-speaking audiences: Rilke, Brecht, Grass. But the bulk of this almost 500-page book consists of the varied and diverse poetry written by poets unknown in this country, and their work, which spans a century of style and form, history and theme, is astoundingly familiar, fresh, and vital. You can flip through these pages at will and find gems such as this short poem by Inge Müller:

“You promised me you would walk with me”

You promised me you would walk with me
In the sun
And by the river, where the trees
Are still in leaf

The trees have been in leaf
Four times since then
Days off are as rare
As sun in late fall—
Leaves rustle
On our desks.

Müller’s economy and imagery call to mind Chinese poetry, and the subject is universal and heartfelt. A few pages later, you can find concrete poems, poems about war and guilt, protest poems, experimental poems, poems about exile and loss, about love and travel, a poem adapted from Joseph Conrad (Heiner Müller), and everywhere, poetry and lines that have the power to slay:

“Wenn sie weint, sieht sie aus wie neunzhen.”
(When she weeps she looks nineteen.)
- Hans Magnus Enzenberger, At Thirty-three

“So geht das all diese Jahre,
Strukturen, Fröste, Eulenflug, Kriege im September.”
(This is how it is every year, structures,
frosts, owl flight, wars in September.)
- Jürgen Becker, Autumn Story

I’ve chosen to include the original German in these few examples because the original is shown side by side with the translation. This is a powerful tool towards understanding the language and the translation itself, and it deepens the reader’s understanding of the poet’s intentions. It is particularly helpful in Ernst Jandl’s transliteration of Wordsworth, where the German line read aloud – “mai hart lieb zapfen eibe hold / er renn bohr in sees kai” – becomes the English line “My heart leaps up when I behold / A rainbow in the sky.” Without the literal translation of the German, a German monoglot would only read “may hard dear cone yew fair” without understanding the poetic device or the poem’s meaning.

This collection is a distillation of a century of verse and Hoffman makes no claim that it is complete; indeed, he refuses to apologize for whatever faults the anthology may have. Scholars may choose to pick apart this anthology and seek weakness; I, instead, will return to it again and again for inspiration and strength.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Earliest Recording of "Howl" Discovered in Portland

The Oregonian recently reported the discovery of an audio recording of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" that predates the famous "first" reading in Berkeley on March 18th, 1956. Howl, of course, is the seminal Beat poem and the subject of an obscenity trial when it was published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Books in 1956. The clear, strong recording was found by John Suiter, a professor at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, while he was doing biographical research on Reed alumnus and Beat poet Gary Snyder. Snyder and Ginsberg were hitchiking through the northwest and participated in poetry readings at the college in mid-February, 1956.

While this does nothing to diminish the legendary Berkeley reading and it's historical significance, it certainly cements Portland's place in Beat history. After all, Portland features in "On the Road," and many of the Beats - Kerouac, Snyder, Ginsberg and Phillip Whalen among them - passed through on their rucksack travels along the winding roads and trails of the Pacific northwest. It also adds a chapter to Oregon's already rich literary history, and provides a fascinating opportunity for scholars and fans to study the development of Ginsberg's poem and writing practices.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson

The best novel of 2007.

How we translate our past actions and experiences is at least as important as those actions and experiences themselves. Out Stealing Horses, itself superbly translated from the Norwegian, follows the arc of Trond Sander's life as he reflects during a quiet retirement on the violent summer that marked his coming of age. Forced to confront a long-avoided past, he finally deliberates on the adolescent loss, aching beauty, and harrowing grief that underpinned his adulthood. With finely drawn characters, a stark natural setting, and haunting minimalist prose, this quiet, powerful, and spare novel of acceptance is a meditative tale for all.

Well, that's what I initially wrote for my bookstore's website. On a deadline, with a word limit. Orwell would be ashamed. Here's a shelf-talker I wrote for the paperback release, something a little more personal and closer to the truth of my experience:

"I’ve recommended this book more than any other in the last year. It’s achingly personal and wonderfully encompassing, and almost effortlessly shadows and shares my thoughts. Petterson quietly drew me into Trond’s childhood, an innocence that was too quickly shattered and thrust into adulthood, and the unconfronted pain that took a lifetime to understand and accept. This story feels like a quiet talk with trusted friend, someone who knows all your secrets and weaknesses and who is always ready with a steady hand, even when you don’t know you need it. The final line, coming at the end of a such a powerful, uplifting and beautiful tale, reads like poetry and feels like the silence at the end of symphony, in that moment between the last fading sound and the first clap of realization that a masterpiece has just been performed."

Now I don't sound like a washed-up book critic with a thesaurus and a style sheet of recommended "review words."