Abigail Spencer | 01 November 2022
A Review of Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red
Orhan Pamuk’s 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature-winning novel, My Name is Red, sets it scene on the streets of Istanbul in 1591, the thousandth year of the Muslim calendar. With ambitious use of multiple perspectives and direct address to the reader, Pamuk crafts a tense murder mystery that questions the artistic devotions of East and West. The novel is almost effortless in its comprehensive philosophical musings on the nature of art and religious idolatry, which Pamuk weaves into a gripping narrative that gives voices to people, art, objects, and colours.
The opening chapter’s invitation from a corpse for the reader to solve their murder quickly morphs into a curiosity about a book that is central to the novel’s plot. What book can have so much power that it leads respected artists to murder? Are the consequences of the book’s illustrations so dire that the art can be deemed blasphemous? The manuscript in question is commissioned by the Sultan, who asks for a history of the thousandth year to be created as a gift for the Doge of Venice; the Sultan justifies his desire for the illustrators to imitate a Frankish, European style because of the book’s function as an olive branch. A feature of great interest in the incomplete manuscript is its unseen—and later on stolen—final illustration, ‘in which, according to the gossip, there’s open defiance of our religion and what we hold sacred.’(p.191). We are finally shown this image in the same scene where we discover the murderer’s identity, during which we learn that the blasphemy manifests as a brazen use of perspectival methods and the rendering of the Sultan the same size as a dog and as Satan, with the Sultan’s face in as great a detail as in religious idols. Persian traditions and Muslim beliefs which conflict with the style of Venetian painters in the manuscript’s creation give rise to a disastrous series of events that drive the narrative forward and prevent Pamuk’s digressions on the nature of art from becoming overbearing.
The idea of false idols is closely tied to the practice of Muslim illuminated manuscripts; if the image doesn’t compliment a text, it can become idolised, and a fear will result from not knowing what Allah does or does not intend to be depicted. Consequently, another attitude to the aforementioned final portrait involves the description of portraiture as a ‘contagion among affluent men’ (p.136), an art form which demonstrates the conceit and arrogance of the Venetians. As the book progresses, we become aware of a commonly held opinion that everyone wants their own portrait made. Yet the Sultan’s desire for a portrait struggles to harmonise with his culture; the characters of the book vary in their opinions on portraiture and Pamuk neither justifies nor fully condemns the art form. Instead, Pamuk unfolds a picture before us where the characters themselves try to reconcile Venetian art styles with their own religious and cultural beliefs, searching for a way to create a portrait without idolatry and in keeping with the artists’ goal to depict what Allah sees.
Throughout the book, Pamuk brings us into scenes of artistic debate, by means of interviewing suspects whose perspectives we hear on the problem of style. Some of the interviewed characters vehemently oppose the concept of style, while other characters are notably excited and enthused by the idea. One illustrator tells us three stories showing that style is a flaw and that a perfect picture does not need a signature, firmly articulating that ‘signature and style are but means of being brazenly and stupidly self-congratulatory about flawed work’ (p.80). Other characters arrive at the conclusion that individual style and signature are to be avoided for the sake of achieving a cohesive “workshop” or “Ottoman” style. Ultimately, however, the narrative cannot deny the existence of style, whether it is indeed a flaw or something to be sought and celebrated. The protagonist and master of the workshop use the “courtesan” method, a connoisseurial approach derived from a story about an illustrator who accidentally makes the courtesan of his illustration more beautiful than the daughter of the commissioner. The master examines the stylistic aspects of the suspects to assist solving the murder by deciphering the illustrations of the Sultan’s incomplete book.
Recurring themes of blindness, time, and memory are also approached from the perspectives of the artists. Perhaps one of the more unnecessary or gratuitous features of the novel is its rather too graphic descriptions of old masters and contemporary artists blinding themselves with needles. Although the disturbing descriptions are difficult to read, they approach the opinions and outlooks discussed theoretically in a tangible manner. Blindness is treated both as a reward and a punishment, from old masters who chose to blind themselves rather than submit their art to a new style, to the torturous act of punishing the murder. Multiple times, the naturally occurring blindness of old age is told to us to be a reward: ‘Wherever the blind miniaturist’s memories reach Allah there reigns an absolute silence, a blessed darkness, and the infinity of a blank page’ (p.98). These discussions of blindness and memory also draw out several ideas about time, for example that only time makes a picture perfect and that illustration is the only means of escaping time.
The symbolism of colour aptly defines the novel, with red being a symbol for passion, anger, blood, revolution, change, and more of the themes imperative to understanding the book. In one chapter, seemingly detached from the plot, we hear the perspective of the colour red itself. “Red” tells us that visual phenomena as simple as colours cannot be explained to those who cannot see. “Red” dismisses a scene of two blind miniaturists where Pamuk ambitiously answers the classic problem of how one describes a colour to a blind person who has never before seen it. The blind miniaturists recall what it was to once see red and ardently argue a colour is felt not seen, ‘If we touched it with the tip of a finger, it would feel like something between iron and copper. If we took it into our palm, it would burn. If we tasted it, it would be full-bodied, like salted meat. If we took it between our lips, it would fill our mouths. If we smelled it, it’d have the scent of a horse. If it were a flower, it would smell like a daisy, not a red rose’ (p.227). Although it is dismissed in favour of the meaning of a colour existing on a separate plane to human existence, glimpsed only through our optical perception, the use of other senses to describe colour is creative and crafts an emotional response. It’s an emotion that perhaps relies upon having previously seen red, but I believe the description does in fact “feel red” and can be expanded to apply the feeling of red to the entire novel.
A final aspect of the novel thus far not touched upon is its equation of a romantic love story with that of artistically motivated crimes of passion. The theme of love goes beyond the literal romantic arc; it gets embedded in every aspect of the novel, from the recurring love story of Husrev and Shirin in the exalted old masters’ illustrations to the passionate devotions of the artists themselves. The symbolic red that colours the narrative finds a poignant finale in the culmination of the book’s love story, when the two protagonists finally explore the physical dimension of love in the last chapter. The intelligent and practical, but somewhat manipulative, Shekure, whose perspective in the book constantly fights for recognition beyond her beauty, coins the phrase ‘spreading salve onto my wounds’ (p.498) to refer to Shekure and her husband’s sexual acts. After the murder is solved and the action closed, Shekure tells us that ‘[t]hese words not only constituted the colour of our love—which settled into a bottleneck between life and death, prohibition and paradise, hopelessness and shame—they were also the excuse for our love’ (p.498). While describing her own experience, she sums up important messages of the novel itself and reminds us how the colour red feels.
Overall, in My Name is Red, Pamuk gives a tense, passion filled exploration of illustration in the late sixteenth century. His innovative structure and address make us feel intimately involved with the rich plot and characters, and this experience is made all the better by his artful descriptions that colour the pages of his narrative. I surely and enthusiastically recommend My Name is Red to any reader or art historian who wants to question the perspectives and connoisseurial tendencies of Western art history, especially those venturing to ask what signature means, whether a portrait asks to be worshipped, and if style is a flaw.