My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red is one of the most multi-faceted novels that I have read in a long time: a page-turner of a psychological murder mystery, a complex love story, an atmosphere- and detail-laden work of historical fiction, an experiment in structure and a timely parable of East and West.
My Name is Red takes place in Istanbul at the end of the 16th century, at the height of Ottoman power, which was also a time when the trends that would lead to Europe’s future dominance were beginning to become apparent. This is the period of the Othello seen from the other side.
The Ottoman period is, for most Europeans and Americans—and perhaps for many Turks as well—a poorly-understood time, very much colored by European perceptions of the historical context and, ironically, feelings of inferiority. The Ottoman Turks were the last of the great Eastern invaders, a group including the Huns, the Arabs and the Mongols, to sweep into Europe. The images handed down to us are of mustachioed janissaries pillaging in the name of Islam contrasted with the perceived opulent licentiousness of the harem, images which have become synonymous with Islam in much popular thought.
These images are not entirely inaccurate—neither, it must be said, are the images held by much of the muslim world of the West being made up of bloodthirsty crusaders—but My Name is Red shows us Ottoman society and daily life from the inside out, and it is, for the large part, recognizable and familiar: people go to work, fall in love, socialise, steal and get stolen from, rule and are ruled.
Pamuk shows the struggle between East and West not on the field of battle, but in the world of Art. The Ottomans were the inheritors of a centuries-old tradition of oriential miniatures, where figures, animals and trees and clouds were not meant to resemble any physical object, but are rather meant to show the essence of the object, in the way God sees it.
The Sultan, however, wants a new book illustrated in the “Frankish” (Renaissance) manner, using perspective, trompe d’oeil, with a portrait of himself.
The head of the atelier where this book is to be completed has a beautiful daughter Shekure whose cavalryman husband has disappeared while fighting the Persians, while Black, her cousin returns to Istanbul after 12 years of exile for having expressed his love for her.
The result of the artistic, religious and romantic tension is the murder of one of the miniaturists.
A story seen through a prismThe story is told in 59 short chapters, each one in the first person from the perspective of a different character: Black, Shekure, the other miniaturists, a jewish matchmaker, children; and not just people, but also coins, corpses, figures in the paintings and even colors (the ‘Red’ in the title).
The effect is to experience the narrative from several angles simultaneously; given the role of Art in the story, one is tempted to see a literary parallel to cubism.
The wealth of detail, however—the smell of the halva or linden trees, the darkness of Istanbul’s alleys, the colors of the illustrations, the feel of the coins—resembles more a European still-life than an oriental miniature.
And that is perhaps the point. Ottoman society, although it had at least another 100-150 years to run as a European power, had become a “traditional society”, looking backwards to its roots, and it was beginning to be pressured by a younger, more dynamic, thrusting culture in Western Europe.
Pamuk treats this as a parable, of the struggle between traditional and modern forms of art, in which are encapsulated many of the societies’ values and objectives. The miniaturist sacrifices individuality in order to conform to the mores of the group, while European art highlights the individuality and ego of the both the artist and the subject. The Western demand for portraits parallels the rise of modern consumer capitalism, where artists (and everyone else) produces what the market wants, not what some central authority (in this case the Sultan) says they can produce.
The result is political, social and cultural stagnation. “The reason we don’t like anything innovative,” says the head miniaturist, “is that there is truly nothing new worth liking”.
The relevance of this to the current debate about Islam and its place in a globalizing world is obvious, but we can of course see a similar struggle playing out right here in East Asia. Authorities try to maintain traditional values against the onslaught of Western ones, while trying, simultaneously, to allow in concepts selectively which, as in the case of the Ottoman miniaturists, results both in a conservative backlash but also the ultimate demise of many of the traditional values one was trying to protect: the miniaturists know that their art form is doomed.
Of course, East Asia was probably far from Orhan Pamuk’s mind when he wrote this novel. But, as the murderer says at the end of the book, “To God belongs the East and the West”.