The Pequod Review:
Orhan Pamuk is a writer of unusual intensity whose works typically explore the conflict between religious traditions and secular modernity, especially in his home country of Turkey. Pamuk’s novels are challenging reads, and it must be admitted that they are not always enjoyable. The plots are usually convoluted, his characters are too often stand-ins for cultural perspectives rather than fully-developed individuals, and his prose (at least in translated form) is frequently stiff and labored.
My Name is Red is Pamuk’s fourth novel and is set in 1500s Istanbul when the Ottoman Empire was struggling to maintain its political and cultural superiority. The story takes place within the insular world of Ottoman miniaturists, and Pamuk uses a murder to explore the cultural tensions, religious heresy, and artistic rivalries of Ottoman society. The story is effectively told from a variety of first-person perspectives — not just the miniaturists themselves, but also inanimate objects like a dog, a tree, a gold coin, a corpse and even the color crimson (“my name is Red”). And some of the best sections of the book are about the nature and history of art itself, and especially the Islamic artistic tradition:
The beauty and mystery of this world only emerges through affection, attention, interest and compassion . . . open your eyes wide and actually see this world by attending to its colors, details and irony.
Before the art of illumination there was blackness and afterward there will also be blackness. Through our colors, paints, art and lobe, we remember that Allah had commanded us to “See”! To know is to remember that you’ve seen. To see is to know without remembering. Thus, painting is remembering the blackness. Thus, painting is remembering the blackness. The great masters, who shared a love of painting and perceived that color and sight arose from darkness, longed to return to Allah’s blackness by means of color. Artists without memory neither remember Allah nor his blackness. All great masters, in their work, seek that profound void within color and outside time. Let me explain to you what it means to remember this darkness, which was revealed in Heart by the great masters of old.
My Name is Red is one of Pamuk’s better novels, one that builds to a powerful conclusion all while remaining inventive and multi-layered. Recommended for fans of symbolic historical fiction like Umberto Eco’s In the Name of the Rose.