MY NAME IS RED
Orhan Pamuk (Knopf, 1998) ISBN: 0-571-20047-8
My Name is Red is a complex murder mystery set in 16th century Istanbul. It has taken me 4 attempts to read. I can’t really point to why. I suspect it might be a combination of my fundamental disinterest in the murder mystery genre, and a general failure to relate to very many of the characters. Perhaps, too, it might just be that Orhan Pamuk’s prose, while beautiful, makes it difficult for me to feel the emotional pull of the story. Since I can’t read Turkish it’s impossible for me to say whether this issue arises from the translation or from the author’s style itself.
Narrated by a variety of characters, My Name is Red is very interesting despite my difficulties getting into it. The novel concerns the murder of a miniaturist, Elegant, most likely by one of the three other senior miniaturists in his workshop. Black, who has recently returned to Istanbul after years of travel, is charged with finding the murderer by Enishte, the father of Black’s childhood sweetheart Shekure. Meanwhile, Istanbul is becoming increasingly violent as fanatical followers of Nusret Hoja campaign against the proliferation of coffeehouses and the influence of idolatrous western art styles which are filtering into the city.
Early in the piece, the murderer invites readers to identify him based on the characteristics of his narration. Black tries to solve the murder by identifying the responsible miniaturist’s style; the only clue at the murder scene is the drawing of a horse. Style is considered an aberration by the miniaturists, who seek to conceal any identifying trace in their work, yet it persists. The elements of style are an important theme in the novel. I did guess the identity of the murderer early on in the piece, but how much was guesswork and how much based on the narrative style, I don’t know.
One of the best aspects of the novel is the stories scattered throughout, told by various characters, from Turkey’s traditional legends and its history. There are also chapters devoted to the perspectives of various drawings, pinned up on the wall of a coffeehouse and narrated by an unseen storyteller. These punctuate the narrative and may provide clues for the reader, as well as provoking thought about the meaning of art and literature.
Don’t be put off by my numerous attempts to read this. Once you get into it, it’s a very enjoyable read, and I’m sure most won’t struggle as I did. It is a novel that demands and rewards attentiveness.