My Name Is Red is a murder mystery and philosophical art novel written by Nobel Prize winning writer Orhan Pamuk, who was born in Istanbul. Since then, Orhan Pamuk has constantly dedicated his writings to the facets and moods of his country and most inherently, Istanbul. My Name Is Red is his most well received work in the English Language, translated by Erdag M. Göknar and published by the prestigious Faber & Faber.
The novel is set in Ottoman Empire of the 1590s and focuses on the murder of a master miniaturist. It is a philosophical whodunnit with a massively visceral extravaganza of art and paintings of different kinds revealing religion, politics, love and sexuality of the era.
To begin, with let me expound what I thought about the form of the novel as it is the first aspect which strikes the reader. The first chapter of the six hundred seventy page novel is titled ‘I am a corpse’, the chapter in which we hear the voice of the murdered master miniaturist from the well, deep down who describes how he was killed by his cursed murderer and fellow artist. Orhan Pamuk creates a mind bending fable of religious and political turmoil, in the following chapters titled, for instance, ‘I am a Dog’; ‘I am a Gold Coin’; ‘I am Red’; ‘I, Satan’.
Unlike many post colonial and third world Nobel Laureate novels, My Name Is Red is the one which follows a very complex plot with a very large cast of characters who belong to different backgrounds, complex and deep and symbolic, unforgettable in a sense, I would say. During the course of the novel, I developed a keen admiration for Esther the Jew. What a masterful creation, full of thought and calculative empathy for her fellow human beings. Furthermore, there is a dog, gold coin, a transgender, Red, Satan, Olive, Stork, and Butterfly along with Master Usman. It took me a long time to get deeply invested in Black’s character, due to his lack of psychological horizon, although deeply satisfying character arc. In a way My Name Is Red is a coming of age story of Black, because he is the perfect archetype of the common man in Istanbul, whose lack of awareness of history, catches up to him.
My Name Is Red is clearly influenced by and pays homage to prose-masters such as James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Umberto Eco, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The English translation by Erdag M. Göknar, when it was first published won the IMPAC Dublin award and soon, My Name Is Red was being cited as the landmark novel which could win Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Prize.
My Name Is Red, is in totality a novel of the tensions between the east and the west which is wondrously explored through the eyes of artists gazing at miniatures and paintings. The novel has the structure and complexity of a labyrinth, because the moment the reader experiences a thunderous shock, Pamuk sets the stage for another and another, creating prisms of reality within reality, and interweaving stories within stories, creating a web of history, politics, social culture, romance and sexual intrigue.
The conflict arises from the metamorphosis conservationist and traditionalist art form of the Turkish art into the Frankish art of the Venetians. Times are changing, the tidal wave is shifting the artistic landscape and a murder occurs amidst this current, of Elegant Effendi. The novel’s resolve lies not in the identity of the murder, but in the sole purpose of the murder; was it religious conflict; was it romantic attachment; or was it greed for power or ascension at a post which apotheosised miniaturists; but what is a great novel without having a hybridised answer of all the questions it poses in the beginning.
The writer exploits the identity crises of the country, and pours that nebulous stream into his characters as well, because the reader is not aware of the true identity of the characters, perhaps till the very end and even when one comes to know the identity of certain characters, the reader is suspended in disbelief of their certainty of knowledge of these human beings. The Islamic tendency to revive the past of the unknown and the mystic religion, and to close their doors to the art and philosophy of the west is a war which is stalemate albeit with constant bloodshed, torment, and heartache on both sides causing a sort of cultural amputation and revengeful liberty often causing increased harm rather than contentment.
In many ways, the novel represents the crisis of our times, the political and cultural clash, isolation and deformity of a third world country in comparison to a infidel first world country, according to the conservative characters in the novel. But it does represent these contradictions in a very compassionate light, ultimately very nostalgic and divinely tragic, in the end. All the characters, are representative of dimensions of the country, mostly very sympathetic, amusing, and sharp-edged except Hasan and his father.
I argue that My Name Is Red is in its entirety of themes, one of the most important novels of our times when he have authoritarian leaders around the world, who wish to subvert our free will and extend the gap between the east and the west through the fire of their hard power.The beauty of this novel, lies not in its vigorous or incisive pessimism as practiced in most post colonial literature but in diversity, beauty, joy, art, colour and peace, and Pamuk’s writing is a glorious symbol of soft power.
It captures the country with the stroke of a sentence merging realism with flights of fantasy into religious landscapes of afterlife and the soul. The myth and reality combine to form a dazzling novel which embraces the thematic and the visceral themes and motifs from the Quran and other influential books of Turkey such as The Book of The Soul, The Book of Kings, The Book of Festivities; and the love story of Hüsrev and Shirin.
I cannot put it in words, how elegant and glorious this novel is, it is a rarity to find Nobel Prize winners writing with such dreamy delightfulness. The novel is terrifying and sad and provocative, despite all the gimmicks and literary techniques, it is an intense read, when it gets down to the depths of the abyss inside the world of miniatures and miniaturists.
In totality, My Name Is Red is a beguiling portrait of art and the landscape of the east, which delights and haunts the reader in numerous guises of its marvellous characters. A seductive and intoxicating novel.