PAMUK BLENDS MYSTERY WITH HISTORY – a book review

Jackie Kabir

My Name is Red
By Orhan Pamuk
Vintage International; pp. 508.

My Name is Red is a novel about a beautiful woman named Shekure whose beauty burnt many hearts in Istanbul. The narrative is set against the background of sixteenth century Ottoman Empire which was threatened by the European powers. This was also true in the case of Persian art and culture. Some of the miniaturists or painters of Istanbul struggled to keep their work free from the influence of the Venetian masters.
My Name is Red is a murder mystery. Two of the chief miniaturists were murdered by one of their disciples. Sultan Murat III of the Ottoman Empire was the patron of art and culture of sixteenth century; he was most interested in miniatures and books, had ordered the painters of his kingdom to make a book which would depict the thousandth year of the Islamic calendar. Sultan Murat had also asked to be portrayed by the miniaturists. This enraged some of the miniaturists as they believed in Nusrat Hoja’s teaching who preached that paintings of living creatures was forbidden in the holy Koran.
The novel is narrated by different voices and is segmented into 41 chapters with headings like: “I will be called a Murderer”, “I am a Corpse”, “I am Death”, “I am Red”.
Black one of the protagonists of the novel has a life long passion for Shekure who is the daughter of the Enisthe with a lost husband and two young sons. The parallel murder mystery is treated as the primary plot of the novel. The Sultan had himself assigned Black to resolve the mystery as it was believed that one of the four disciples of Enisthe is responsible for the occurrence.
Pamuk revealed in his Nobel speech that a lot of the events which he witnessed in his own lifetime as an inhabitant of Turkey has somehow came into life as he wrote My Name is Red. The politics, the culture most of all the historical artifacts of the country were depicted with keen dexterity. He wanted the Turkish way of life to be exposed to the literary world. Modernization of Turkey was a fearful thing for many like the murderer in the novel. As he tried to reason with his teachers, mentors that they shouldn’t be influenced by the Venetian masters that their art should avoid following European style.
The preacher Nusrat Hoja said that those who created pictures of animals and human beings are forsaken even though Koran doesn’t say Bokhari sharif says that we are told. Talking about Persian miniaturists, Pamuk has described how they persevered to draw the same horse from their memory time and time again. They could do that with their eyes closed. Some of the miniaturists of that time were blind; they drew from their memory. This was because they believed that blindness is a perfect condition to create pure art, the painters wouldn’t be distracted by other sensory temptations. The reason for painting live episodes was that they felt that the past must be recorded. There was painting from the time of Tamerlane to Sulaiman, from Bukhara to Herat.
The murderer who skillfully deceived everyone and continued to be among the four disciples of Master Osman had to be captured by his fellow miniaturists. These four were called Butterfly, Storke, Olive and Black. All these miniaturists were the best in Istanbul and with master Osman’s guidance they produced The Book of Skills, The Book of Festivities and The Book of Victories.
According to the murderer: “A city’s intellect ought to be measured not by its scholars, libraries, miniaturists, calligraphers and schools, but by the number of crimes insidiously committed on its dark streets over thousands of years. By this logic, doubtless, Istanbul is the world’s most intelligent city.” (123)
The book is abundant in allusions from history: The Book of Kings by Firdousi written in 1010, the depiction of Leyla and Mejnun, The flight of Bihzad; the great painter from Heart to Tabriz. How Istanbul was plagued with homosexuality, fake gold coins in the sixteenth century. The wedding receptions that had bridal procession, the pilaf that is so very unique Turkish were to be found in the book. There is a mention of all four sects of Islam in the book: Maleki, Hambeli, Hanefi and Shafeti and how they are different regarding a widow is also given in My Name is Red.The position of women in the late sixteenth century was like a belonging to some male relative or husband. There was no place for a woman with out a guardian. It is shown how indecisive a woman can be while there is no one to support her. And love alone is not enough for a woman to survive in a patriarchal world. The messenger who runs errands for everyone in the pretext of selling silk is also a noteworthy depiction in the novel. Altogether is a brilliant historical love story although it can get a bit tiresome due to the detailed description of everyday chores but the gripping story makes up for that.

Jackie teaches English language and lives in Dhaka.
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