The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 14 June 2002

My Name is Red

by Orhan Pamuk

In this inventive novel, the reader is thrown back to the end of the 16th century, and into the Sultan's workshop of miniaturists in Istanbul. There is a brutal murder, and a mystery unfolds within the conflict between traditional Ottoman ways and the infiltration of Western artistic styles. The novel itself has an odd style, jumping from one first-person narrative to another, as spoken by the characters, by inanimate objects in the book illustrations, and even by Satan and Death themselves. Black, a man returning from a long period of romantic self-exile, re-enters the esoteric world he left behind. He pursues the beautiful Shekura, daughter of a man leading a new project to create a book for the Sultan, designed and illustrated in the Western manner. In Islamic this traditional society, this desire to depict things in a realistic manner flirts with blasphemy (the Taliban are a recent extreme example of this tenet). Throughout the book, the conflicting influences present a tension within the story. When one of the illustrators of this book is murdered, furtive suspicion is cast on his fellow workers, Olive, Stork and Butterfly. There are intrigues in the workshop and on the streets. Meanwhile, Black's romance with Shekura is also played out in the atmosphere of modern ideas conflicting with traditions of the past. The life of Istanbul in 1595 is vibrant and full of sly characters and situations. Pamuk brings this to the page quite well. With the esoteric ideas, historical setting, murder mystery, the conflict between new and old ideas, insular groups of the elite workers, and even the romance, the book begs comparison to Eco's The Name of the Rose. Through the story, also, there is a dizzying array of traditional tales and myths. These are somewhat confusing and occasionally distracting (though for Turkish readers, perhaps more clear). Some tales are movingly told. Others seem tossed in. There is an unsettled air in the story that could leave the reader uncomfortable. There is something missing here, as if the story is told at arm's length. Yet it is an intriguing and intricate story from an unusual (for Western readers) source, and with some relevance to today's East-West conflicts.

(Pamuk was awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize for literature.)

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