Thursday, December 31, 2015
My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red is, at its simplest, a murder-mystery: someone has murdered Elegant Effendi, one of the miniaturist illustrators tasked by the Ottoman Sultan to illustrate a great book which will be given as a present to the Venetian Doge. Pamuk puts us in the point of view of the murdered miniaturist, who narrates the unpleasantness of his death, and then, in the next chapter, the point of view of the murderer. (Cannily, of course, not telling us who he is.)
There are chapters from the point of view of the protagonist, Black, charged by his Uncle with finding the murderer; there are chapters from the point of view of his beloved, the beautiful Shekure; there are chapters from the point of view of multiple ancillary characters, and even a few of the illustrations themselves. ("I don't want to be a tree," a drawing of a tree tells us, "I want to be its meaning.") There are even, as the title suggests, chapters from the point of view of colors.
Both the murderer and his victim tell us that the murder was sparked by an anxiety about the propriety, under Islamic law and theology, of the book, and perhaps of illustration itself. My Name is Red grapples with the relationship between God and art, under the often iconoclastic framework of Islam. Is it a sin to depict the world realistically, as the Frankish painters do? Is it hubris to paint, as the old masters do, through memory and repetition, trying to reproduce the world as it is seen in the eyes of Allah? There is much talk about what it means to draw a horse, and whether to draw a horse that one sees, or the horse that Allah has imagined.
I love that kind of stuff, and, for me, what was most interesting about My Name is Red was being forced to think about in a religious context that is ultimately foreign to me. There are iconoclastic traditions in Christianity, too, and plenty of books that deal with them, but only Islam could provide the framework for this book. Pamuk mines from Islamic tradition innumerable stories which are told in the illuminated manuscripts the miniaturists create, new to me, but certainly as familiar to his own audience as Abraham and Isaac, or Jacob and Esau are to me. I liked being pushed outside of my comfort zone in that way.