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.

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