A couple of weeks ago in my column for The Riveter, I talked about the importance of literature in cultural exploration. As I think anyone who has occupied multiple countries will appreciate, fiction can provide an invaluable window into the historical, social, and political factors (among many others) that feed culture. When I first moved to the US, it was a wonderfully explorative American literature curriculum that best served my need to understand the country. Now back in my place of origin, I continue to believe that fiction provides the next-best option for those in possession of a limited travel budget. It was in this spirit that I decided to read Orhan Pamuk’s masterpiece My Name is Red – my first dip into the world of Turkish literature.
My Name is Red is set in Istanbul, at the end of the 1500s. Following the death of one of the Sultan’s chief illuminators – the result of a controversial book that the Sultan has commissioned for illustration – the novel’s multiple, intersecting narratives unravel the mystery behind the murder. Yet beyond this, My Name is Red offers an exploration of the romance and rivalry surrounding Istanbul’s artistry. Religious and cultural tensions abound as the novel progresses, asking whether the illuminator’s death was ultimately the result of artistic devotion or opposition.
“‘What attracts us to writing, illustrating and painting is bound up in this fear of retribution. It’s not only for money and favour that we kneel before our work from morning to evening, continuing by candlelight through the night to the point of blindness and sacrifice ourselves for pictures and books, it’s to escape the prattle of others, to escape the community, but in contrast to this passion to create, we also want those we’ve forsaken to see and appreciate the inspired pictures we’ve made – and if they should call us sinners? Oh, the suffering this brings upon the illustrator of genuine talent! Yet, genuine painting is hidden in the agony no one sees and no one creates. It’s contained in the picture, which on first sight, they’ll say is bad, incomplete, blasphemous or heretical. A genuine miniaturist knows he must reach that point, yet at the same time, he fears the loneliness that awaits him there.'”
My Name is Red is a novel about which I had no preconception. Other than some truly emphatic recommendations on the cover, the novel’s origin, from the mind of a celebrated Turkish author, was all that I had to go on. This does, however, only consolidate my belief that My Name is Red serves as a perfect example of the merits of cultural exploration through literature. While I would certainly not claim that deriving cultural knowledge exclusively from books is a good idea, this novel absolutely developed my understanding of the complex history and dynamics at work in Turkey during the 1500s. Much of this was the result of an expertly executed exploration of the tensions exhibiting themselves at the time – tensions that continue to dominate contemporary global cultural narratives:
” ‘To God belongs the East and West,’ I said in Arabic like the late Enishte. ‘But East is east and West is west,’ said Black. ‘An artist should never succumb to hubris of any kind,’ said Butterfly, ‘he should simply paint the way he sees fit rather than troubling over East or West.'”
Each chapter of the novel is told from the perspective of a different character, with varying levels of relationship to the murder victim. That Pamuk is able to effectively distinguish between the voices of such a propensity of characters is one of the more impressive aspects of the work. Including chapters titled ‘I Am a Corpse’ and ‘I Am a Murderer’, readers will be hardly surprised to find this a novel weaved with true suspense. At 666 pages (unintentional, I am sure) this is a long work. And I did not find that it was a novel I could speed through. Yet the plot was always perfectly paced and each character balanced with the necessary depth and complexity.
Beyond these aspects, I particularly enjoyed the chapter’s narrated by My Name is Red‘s unidentified storyteller. Based on the origins of illustrations that the storyteller selects from Istanbul’s resident illuminators, these chapters relate the story of a diversity of items: from a dog and a tree, to the colour red. Providing a break from the murder mystery aspect of the plot, these chapters provide some of the most beautiful and reflective prose in the novel:
“I hear the question upon your lips: What is it to be a color? Color is the touch of the eye, music to the deaf, a word out of the darkness. Because I’ve listened to souls whispering – like the susurrus of the wind – from book to book and object to object for tens of thousands of years, allow me to say that my touch resembles the touch of angels. Part of me, the serious half, calls out to your vision while the mirthful half soars through the air with your glances. I’m so fortunate to be red! I’m fiery. I’m strong. I know men take notice of me and that I cannot be resisted. I do not conceal myself: For me, delicacy manifests itself neither in weakness nor in subtlety, but through determination and will. So, I draw attention to myself. I’m not afraid of other colors, shadows, crowds or even of loneliness. How wonderful it is to cover a surface that awaits me with my own victorious being!”
My Name is Red is a revelation in many ways. For a book of such length, it never deviates from purpose and plot. It is consistently beautiful. If you are looking for a fictional cultural exploration of true magnificence and undoubtedly timeless significance, you need look no further.