Sarah A. Smith
MURDER IN MINIATURE
TURKISH NOVELIST ORHAN Pamuk knows how to write a classy opening line. His last book, The New Life, which was widely praised, began bravely with: 'I read a book one day and my whole life was changed.' The start of his new work, his fourth novel to be published in English, is equally courageous: 'I am nothing but a corpse now.' While the first is a challenge for the writer to live up to, the second is a challenge for the reader to puzzle over.
Set in a miniaturist's workshop in late sixteenth-century Istanbul, My Name is Red is a murder mystery with a number of twists. First, both the murderer and his victims are among the band of narrators who share the story, as are pictures of a dog, a counterfeit gold coin, and the colour crimson and other staples of book illustration. Second, the murder motive is nothing so simple as professional rivalry or jealousy in love — although these both come into it — but the tensions between followers of the Islamic style of illustration and those attracted to the Venetian school. Third, there is a subplot that examines in a prosaic style a fairy-tale romance.
This may sound convoluted, but Pamuk’s fiendish plotting — I didn’t guess the identity of the murderer until it was pretty much spelt out for me towards the end — and postmodern sensibilities are more teasing than anything else. At the heart of his book is a commitment to story-telling: the strands f the plot are linked so intricately that it makes most Western attemps at layered story lines look ham-fisted. And the author's meditations on art and the artist are woven into the texture of the book so well that it is impossible to see them as anything but integral.
The oral tradition is also important for Pamuk: the coffee-house storyteller is a key figure, and the pictures of the dog and other illustrations speak at his behest. These provide the reader with some extraordinary diversions and moments of light relief from the murkier aspects of the story. The coin gives a dizzying list of all the places it has been (Pamuk is strong on lists) and trills vainly: 'I've realised that a large majority do sincerely love me. In this age of hatred, such heartfelt — even impassioned — affection ought to gladden us all.' Meanwhile, the wily Esther, a matchmaking Jewess who carries letters between the lovers. Black and Shekure, gives her account with plentiful comments and questions, prompting us to reassess what we have read. The close of the novel, which excuses the narrative for exaggerating, is not just a knowing joke — 'For the sake of a delightful and convincing story, there isn't a lie Orhan wouldn't deign to tell' — but a nod to hundreds of years of folk custom.
My Name is Red is much more than a well-paced detective story stuffed with comic set pieces. Pamuk explores ideas about patronage (who is responsible for content — artist or commissioner?), artistic identity (should a painter sign his work? Is the creator important?), and the evaluation of paintings (what makes a work great? How important is recognition?). He also examines the incorporation of Western techniques and genres, such as perspective and portraiture, into Eastern art in the six-teenth century and the debate on style that this inspired.
This is fascinating and fitting for a writer with a deep interest in his country's Ottoman past (and one of the few who will lay claim to it), but there is something else at work here. Writing about the need to move on and embrace new ideas, and the impossibility of preserving a tradition without in some way adapting it, Pamuk has fashioned a subtle riposte to fundamentalism, represented here by a cleric called Husret and his fanatical followers. There are also biting remarks on the position of women — remarks as relevant to modern Turkey as to Ottoman.
As detailed as the finest calligraphy and as colourful as the most prized of the Sultan's manuscripts, My Name is Red is a remarkable and ebullient work. Read it for its history, its politics and its sheer zest for life.