Saturday, July 14, 2007

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

My Name is Red is a fascinating, erudite and incredibly long novel which is obsessed with the relationship between painters and their subjects in Istanbul in the year 1590. It’s a murder mystery, a story of unrequieted love, a history lesson, and a great introduction to the history of Turkish painters. If this subject seems a bit beyond arcane, rest assured: it is.

It took me a number of months to finish My Name is Red, in part because it is exceedingly long, and in part because it is the antithesis of the thriller. The novel is filled with long winded first person speculation about the nature of perspective, the morality of representation, and the lives and times of master illustrators, called miniaturists by the Turks of the time.

The novel is told from dozens of different perspectives, about six of whom are main characters, and the rest of whom are walk ons, or fictional constructs of main characters. (“I am a Gold Coin”, “I am a dog”, “I will be called a murderer”, etc.) Through each of their tales, the truth about a complicated conspiracy among the sultan’s illustrators, and the murders which stem from it unfold. There’s murder, sex, disease, betrayl, drugs, homosexuality, and lots and lots of philosophizing about artistry.

The book is highly topical, as East / West tensions, and the nature of what it means to be a devout muslim are at the heart of the tale, and resonate throughout every back alley and coffeeshop of Istanbul. For those Norm Americans, like myself, who have been so bombarded with post 9/11 imagery decrying the negativity of Islam, this novel is an important tour of the rich cultural history and structure of deeply held beliefs which are a mystery to most of us. One of my goals over the last year has been to develop a deeper understanding of the Middle East, because it’s clear that my countrymen have too long remained willfully ignorant of this region of the world, and are currently suffering for it. Pamuk has helped in this goal in ways the Economist simply never could.

Fascinating and challenging book. I know of absolutely no one to whom I could recommend this one. Also, no more Pamuk for me for a while. Good stuff, but there’s a lot out there which is less dense, less tangled, and less arcane.

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