Friday, July 15, 2011

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

Rating: 3 & ½ Stars

[Translated from the Turkish by Erdag M. Goknar]

Orhan Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006

“…Let it not be forgotten that in the Glorious Koran, ‘creator’ is one of the attributes of Allah. It is Allah who is creative… who brings that which is not into existence, who gives life to the lifeless. No one ought to compete with him. The greatest of sins is committed by painters who presume to do what He does, who claim to be as creative as He…”

This statement is the essential conflict of ‘My Name is Red’, Orhan Pamuk’s intricate tale of Art and murder in 16th century Turkey under Ottoman rule. It’s a world where artistry is circumscribed by religious ideology, and where mad old painters aspire to blindness as the ultimate mark of Allah’s favor.

The world of these painters, or more correctly, miniaturists, is the centerpiece of the novel. They are anguished souls unable to unleash their true artistry, shackled to the traditions of the ‘old masters’, and forbidden to innovate. This last condition is proving especially cumbersome because the Ottoman Empire has become increasingly susceptible to the influence of European art with its dazzling use of perspective and seductive portraiture. But in the eyes of the imams, that way lies heresy and perdition. The painters are torn between artistic envy and their religious convictions.

Then a miniaturist, working on a book specially commissioned by the Sultan, is murdered. There are any number of suspects - from his rival-colleagues to the followers of a fundamentalist cleric. Summoned to solve the mystery is Black, an erstwhile artist and clerk. Black accepts, in order to ingratiate himself with the father of his beloved, Shekure. Black is a fool for love, but Shekure is a single mother living at the mercy of a patriarchal society. She has no intention of yoking her family’s fortunes to Black without carefully hedging her bets.

The book is gratifying, both as historical fiction as well as an intelligently crafted mystery. It proceeds at a leisurely stroll, and with the frequent scenic detours down the by lanes of Ottoman art, history, culture and philosophy, it is often an aesthetic delight, with many passages of surpassing beauty. The plot has mystery’s requisite tension, and the conclusion is satisfactory, if not highly suspenseful.

Where it falters is in setting and characterization. I would have expected more color and richer detail in descriptions of sixteenth century Istanbul, one of the most storied cities in the world. More disappointing is the characterization. It has the same flaws that may be leveled at miniature painting – lack of depth and perspective. The story is told through multiple viewpoints, but the characters frequently contradict themselves and indulge in so much double speak, that we have no idea who they are, or what they believe. They remain mostly a strange, amorphous bunch. The prevailing mood of characterization is an unabashed homoeroticism. Not a single youth escapes having an adoring adjective – ‘pretty’, ‘lovely’, ‘beautiful’- affixed to his person. The problem with a literary world where every male is assumed to be just a little bit gay is that it is at best a lop-sided, and at worst a falsified view of human nature. Literature becomes less Art and more artifice.

Turkey has long been at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and the Middle East, and its struggle with cultural identity is evident in the novel. That is to say, Pamuk portrays it but seems unable to reconcile the differences. What the book offers is an exclusively Islamic worldview that fails to reaffirm the import of one of its most inspiring lines:

“Nothing is pure…To God belongs the East and the West. May he protect us from the will of the pure and the unadulterated.”

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