Ottoman style? It's to die for
The world of sixteenth-century Turkish illuminators is the unlikely backdrop for Orhan Pamuk's sparkling novel, My Name Is Red
Sunday August 5, 2001
My Name Is Red
translated by Edrag Goknar
Faber £10.99, pp417
What we see seldom corresponds to what we know. We know tables have four identical legs and domestic animals are smaller than the buildings they live in, but we never see all four legs of a table in their entirety, and the houses on the floor of a valley look smaller than the terrier we are walking on the hills above. Rather than conveying reality as it is, the eye creates a series of elaborate fictions, and a so-called 'eyewitness' is actually the person furthest removed from the truth.
The history of Western art from the Renaissance to the rise of cubism, however, amounts to one long love affair with seeing, with point of view and perspective. Because what is seen is necessarily seen at a specific point in time, this also renders Western art time-based.
By contrast, Islamic art - or rather, since Islam forbids figurative art, Islamic manuscript illustration, which ushers figurative art in through the back door - opts for stylisation rather than the 'realism' of seeing, and thus seems to strive to express an unchanging truth that lies beyond the shifting perspectives that unfold in and as time. This antithesis is at the heart of the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk's magnificent new novel, set in sixteenth-century Constantinople.
Although it features a large cast, My Name Is Red is essentially the story of Black, a failed illustrator who has spent 12 years in the eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire after falling in love with his beautiful cousin, Shekure, and being rejected by her.
Returning to his native Constantinople in the middle of a bleak winter, he finds everything changed. Shekure, married and widowed in his absence, is once again looking for a husband. Meanwhile, her father, a wealthy and influential former ambassador to Venice, known to all and sundry as 'Uncle', has embarked on a long-cherished project, the compilation of an illuminated book for the sultan in which the world will be depicted 'realistically' and in perspective, in the manner of the Renaissance painters Uncle grew to admire in Italy.
This, though, is a dangerous enterprise, for Islamic fundamentalists are abroad in the city and they hate all art and Western art in particular. One of the illustrators working on the book being prepared for the sultan has already been found at the bottom of a well with his skull crushed and, before long, Uncle himself is brutally murdered.
As Black simultaneously tries to woo Shekure and identify the killer, now hanging about in coffee houses, now talking to illustrators, now poring over the priceless illuminated manuscripts in the sultan's treasury, Pamuk takes the reader into the strange and beautiful world of Islamic art, in which Western notions no longer make sense. Nothing, for instance, could be more fundamental to an understanding of Western art than the concept of style, for style is, after all, the true expression of an artist's 'point of view' and 'perspective'. The quintessentially Western idea that everyone is a unique individual with their own 'outlook' or perhaps even 'vision' (it is significant that all these notions should be derived from seeing) calls for a style.
The illustrators Black consults, however, scoff at style, calling it a defect. For them, the perfect illustrator is not one who tries to express his unique vision of the world. Indeed, the perfect illustrator does not even see the world but, having long ago gone blind as a result of his labours, draws it without any contaminating random input from his individuality, rendering it as it truly is 'in the memory of Allah'
Unfortunately for him, however, the killer, who is an illustrator himself, does have a style, and he is eventually unmasked through some drawings he has inadvertently left behind. And his misfortune is the misfortune of Turkey as well - all Turks now want to see the world with Western eyes, something that they will never truly master. Meanwhile, the traditional culture they have abandoned is also out of reach, and the book ends with the spectacle of a civilisation that has nowhere to go.
Despite this pessimistic conclusion, My Name Is Red is far from pessimistic. The anguish of a nation that has lost its identity is there, expressed most notably through the figure of the killer, who is not a cardboard villain but, like the killer in a Hitchcock film, a man in torment, infinitely more aware of the darkness of things than those around him.
This darkness in the background, though, is counterbalanced by the charming, poignant love story in the foreground. Indeed, this is a book in which there is much emphasis on love, food and the simple pleasures of life. Asked about the joys of living, the sultan's ageing chief illustrator does not hesitate in listing beautiful women and boys, friendship, art and children.
The love of children looms particularly large in My Name Is Red. Shekure, who is named after the novelist's own mother, is absolutely devoted to her two young sons, who, like the novelist and his real-life brother, are called Orhan and Shevket, and the book is dedicated to Pamuk's own young daughter, Rüya. This bringing together of parents and progeny, past and present, fact and fiction, in much the same manner as Islamic art brings everything together on the same plane without the gradations of perspective, is, of course, deliberate.
Love, the author seems to be saying, is the timeless truth 'in the memory of Allah' that cuts across divisions and keeps everything whole, while time and the change and decay it brings are illusions we suffer from because we foolishly insist on trusting the 'evidence' of our eyes.
Appropriately, an important motif in the book is inflation. Constantinople is awash with coins that are either real but contain less gold than they should, or forgeries made in Venice. As a result, the population has lost faith in the currency and prices are rising everywhere.
Inflation is something we are only too familiar with in our own world. The monetary variety may have been brought under control, but the literary variety is on the rampage. Not a week goes by without the review pages speaking of some new 'major talent' who, when the hype dies down, turns out to have little to offer in terms of the enjoyment and enlightenment he or she can procure for the reader.
In this world of forgeries, where some might be in danger of losing their faith in literature, Pamuk is the real thing, and this book might well be one of the few recent works of fiction that will be remembered at the end of this century.