My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
Written by Orhan Pamuk in 1998 and translated by Erdağ M. Göknar in 2001 The Novel is based in 16th century Istanbul and depicts the lives of miniaturist and illuminators. Turkey then was becoming the bridge between Europe and Asia. Set as a murder mystery Pamuk explores the culture of the time as well as highlight the conflicts between Art and religion. Western Art that was seen as encouraging idolatry stood against non-realistic eastern Art. The Artists exposed to Frankish style of painting debated their traditional standing on the function of Art. Questions of Western individuality as compared to community-based work are raised. Art in eastern world was collaborative and many Artists creating masterpieces left them unsigned.
There is a hidden free indirect narrative that only exists if you consider the book in its entirety. The indirect narrative is about eastern culture itself (this almost becomes a character) and why it stayed behind whereas West (shown in book as Frankish influence) progressed after that point.
With numerous narrators Pamuk forms a cultural mosaic and uncovers a crisis in the eastern world that exists even today.
Multiple narrators in first person provide a testimony. Since they only know a small part this device of narration also serves the element of murder-mystery.
Here is an example of the debate within the book:
“This, however, is precisely what the new European masters are doing, and they’re not satisfied with merely depicting and displaying … The artists also dare to situate their subjects in the centre of the page, as if man were meant to be worshiped”
(Pamuk, 2001,p. 465)
My Name is Red is seen as a historical mystery Novel but with speaking corpse, talking dog and tree (often as illustrations of such things) it also has a magical element however laws of probability are strictly obeyed so this is not a magical realism Novel.
This is perhaps more than a Novel, it is an essay on Art, and it is a philosophical debate. It is a crucial moment when a picture no longer was an aid for meaning of text, and as Enishte discovers (in his trip to Venice) it stands on it’s own and has it’s own meaning:
“As I slowly sensed that the underlying tale was the picture itself”.
(Pamuk, 2001,p. 41)
Choice for Art is perhaps allegorical for choice for life. Otherwise why would a tree be a narrator? Even a tree contributes to the Art debates. The tree does not wish to be merely an ornament or depict reality, it wants to be associated with another entity and have meaning. The tree takes the established stand:
“I don’t want to be a real tree, I want to be its meaning.”
(Pamuk, 2001,p. 80)
Pamuk (with multiple narration) allows many views of the inadequate narrators and in their own voice. Short chapters in first person provide many streams of consciousness.
Another reason for so many is perhaps because he seem to be interested in creating a Novel which like a painting has many colours and just like one of the illustrations is a beautiful image that needs to be re-examined many times. Perhaps just as illustrations each chapter which resembles an illustration is a prose equivalent of an illumination. In the Radio four Book club interview Pamuk mentions that he wanted to write a Novel that would be about the love of painting (he used to be a painter before being a writer). He mentions that he wanted to show that in life there is always something hidden on the shaded side of our vision. He did a lot of research from that period for this book. Reading it (and having read some of the original poems and books mentioned in the Novel most of which are Persian literature) I could recognize his pastiche of such literature. For instance the romance of Black and Shekure echoes the actual story of Hüsrev and Shirin (Nizami, 1170). Hüsrev goes on long arduous journeys before returning to Shirin who initially because of his marriage of convenience rejects him. Farhad loves Shirin unconditionally from a distance. He seems to mix these two in Black for this book.
In this extract Black has depicted himself and his love as the famous characters Hüsrev and Shirin:
“on horseback closely resembled that moment,
pictured a thousand times in which Hüsrev visits Shirin”.
(Pamuk, 2001,p. 54)
Pamuk gives his female characters a lot of wit and makes them resourceful. He reflects on a culture, which takes away economical-social choices, and yet shows how such women have to be even stronger or smarter than men in order to secure themselves or their children.
Esther for instance (despite her illiteracy) has developed a Niche for being a love messenger and could read a letter from the smell! She understands people’s social standing and their power:
“My poor Shekure, you’re neither a nobleman nor a pasha with a fancy seal”.
(Pamuk, 2001,p. 57)
Pamuk uses Esther’s narration to provide gossip like insight. Esther is very observant. She is particularly aware of other women around her.
“ ‘Shekure, the daughter of Master Enichte, is burning with love”, I said.’ “
(Pamuk, 2001,p. 206)
Shekure who is beautiful and is adored by men has enough wit to assess suitability of men rather than fall for them based on impulse. Here she reveals this:
“it pleases me that I’m being watched.
And if I happen to tell a lie or two from time to time,
it’s so you don’t come to any false conclusions about me.”
(Pamuk, 2001,p. 67)
Stylistically the book is rather poetic. As a writer I’ll experiment with first person narration and stream of consciousness in his style.