My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk; translated by Erdaǧ Göknar (New York: Knopf, 2001. 536 pp)

Set in Istanbul during the Ottoman Empire, My Name Is Red functions as a murder mystery at its core. In its simplest construction, the plot of this novel seeks to find out who-done-it. Yet, the strength of this prize-winning story lies not in its plot but in its poetic language and descriptive setting.

The main characters frequent the miniaturist scene painting illustrations for the Sultan. With a recent commission from the sovereign causing uproar, a murder occurs and the victim’s associates become the most likely suspects.

Andrew: This novel has an intriguing narrative structure. How do you feel that impacted the novel as a whole?

Donovan: My Name Is Red uses an unusual technique with every chapter narrated from a different character. Thus, while the story unfolds, we interpret the happenings through the framework of that specific character. In other words, the murderer dictates plot lines one way while the protagonist responds in a different way.

With the murderer narrating certain parts of the story, keeping his identity secret offers a glimpse at the virtuosity of Pamuk’s writing. Obviously, such a technique could never work with an illustrated story, but the text hides the identity and the murderer schizophrenically shifts into a different voice when speaking.

“Now I am completely divided, just like those figures whose head and hands are drawn and painted by one master while their bodies and clothes are depicted by another. When a God-fearing man like myself unexpectedly becomes a murderer, it takes time to adjust. I’ve adopted a second voice, one befitting a murderer, so that I might still carry on as though my old life continued. I am speaking now in this derisive and devious second voice, which I keep out of my regular life. From time to time, of course, you’ll hear my familiar, regular voice, which would’ve remained my only voice had I not become a murderer. But when I speak under my workshop name, I’ll never admit to being ‘a murderer.’ Let no one try to associate these two voices, I have no individual style or flaws in artistry to betray my hidden persona” (112).

Donovan: One of the narrative techniques Pamuk uses is personifying different objects and animals, such as a tree, a coin, a dog, or even the color red. What did you think about narrating inanimate objects?

Andrew: While I felt that it was artistically executed, I felt that the personifcation didn’t add much to the novel. While it was interesting to know the dog’s thoughts or what a coin knew about the murderous situation, it was obvious to me that the inanimate objects didn’t commit the murder. On the other hand, it was intriguing, as each view offered something new, especially that of the dog.

“I’m a dog, and because you humans are less rational beasts than I, you’re telling yourselves, ‘Dogs don’t talk.’ Nevertheless, you seem to believe a story in which corpses speak and characters use words they couldn’t possible know. Dogs do speak, but only to those who know how to listen.” (11)

Andrew: What was the theme that you enjoyed the most in the novel?

Islamic Miniaturist Painting

Donovan: For me, the most interesting idea in My Name Is Red surrounds the notion of sacred versus secular. A tome filled to the brink with the art forms of the Ottoman Empire, Pamuk describes the tension between the art forms of the Old Masters and the new Western influences from Europe. By commissioning illustrations in a Western style, the Sultan conjures a deep divide between conservative and liberal ideals.

Much like modern-day Istanbul, the characters in My Name Is Red live the fine line between pious conservatism and a careful acceptance of the new. Pamuk notes this tension nicely when he writes,

“The poverty, plague, immorality and scandal we are slave to in this city of Istanbul can only be attributed to our having distanced ourselves from the Islam of the time of Our Prophet, Apostle of God, to adopting new and vile customs and to allowing Frankish, European sensibilities to flourish in our midst” (80).

Donovan: How about you?

Andrew: I found that the notion of color throughout the novel was most enjoyable. As a reader, we are to look at color as a means to solve the mystery itself.

“Try to discover who I am from my choice of words and colors, as attentive people like yourselves might examine footprints to catch a thief. This…brings us to the issue of ‘style,’ which is now of widespread interest. Does a miniaturist, ought a miniaturist, have his own personal style? A use of color, a voice all his own?” (17)

Pamuk uses color amid the artistic Islamic miniaturist painters to help us decipher not only the murder, but the qualities of the characters themselves. Color also serves as a dialogue for artistry in the novel. While Turkish painters paint in one style, Frankish painters paint in another. Pamuk explores these differences in style, perspective, and color, asking all the time if one is more holy or righteous than the others.

Andrew: So what’s the verdict? Did you like My Name Is Red?

Donovan: Given the concepts and writing style, I understand why My Name Is Red receives such high praise. Yet, I did not thoroughly enjoy the book. I found the first half of the story to entertain and awe, but the second half felt bogged down with dense descriptions of art and Turkish culture. Had I known more about these subjects, I am certain that my evaluation of My Name Is Red would be higher. Thus, I recommend the book specifically for people interested in Turkish culture and art.

Andrew: Setting off with the goal of reading something from the Eastern canon of literature, I’m glad I read My Name Is Red. Much like you, I didn’t thoroughly enjoy the book, most likely because I’m used to the Western style of storytelling. I understand why it received such high praise, but I feel as though a cursory knowledge of Islamic miniaturist paintings and the cultural nuances would have helped me as a reader considerably. If the reader, like me, is interested in expanding horizons into the Eastern way of thinking, I recommend My Name Is Red, but be forewarned, it will be a rough journey.

Donovan’s Verdict: 3 out of 5

Andrew’s Verdict: 2.5 out of 5

Born in Istanbul in 1952, Orhan Pamuk spent his early years dreaming of becoming an artist. Educated at American Robert College and Istanbul University, Pamuk decided to become a novelist at the age of 23. His debut novel, Cevdet Bay and His Sons, won him the Orhan Kemal and Milliyet literary prizes. While serving as a visiting scholar at Columbia University, Pamuk wrote The Black Book which gave him international acclaim. In 2002, Pamuk’s novel, My Name Is Red, earned him the IMPAC Dublin literary award. Pamuk has won many prestigious awards including the 2006 Nobel Prize, the Richarda Hucka Prize, and was named among the world’s 100 intellectuals by Prospect Magazine, and one of the 100 most influential persons by Time Magazine.

Erdaǧ Göknar is the Assistant Professor of Turkish Studies at Duke University. He holds a Ph.D. in Near and Middle Eastern studies from the University of Washington and an M.F.A in creative writing from the University of Oregon. A Turkish-American scholar, he is currently a fellow at the National Humanities Center where he is writing a critical analysis of the Turkish novel and Orhan Pamuk. He is the recipient of two Fulbright awards, the IMPAC Dublin literary award, and an NEA translation grant.

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