Heresies of the Paintbrush
In the 16th-century Turkish Empire of this novel, artists are required to see things as God sees them.
By Richard Eder
Time's deletions, like a computer's, are not really deleted. A technician can restore what the keyboard has made to vanish, and the past is never quite gone. Historical change deteriorates and slides back; defeat hangs around, sometimes for centuries, awaiting the chance to become victory. Not only did the South rise again; it went Republican.
Proust was literature's foremost artificer at undeleting an individual's memory. The Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, whose intricate intrusions of past into present have been compared to Proust's, works on the memory of a nation and a civilization.
Kemal Ataturk obliterated every vestige of the once-powerful, long-tottering 600-year Ottoman Empire. He decreed Westernization: Islam was restricted, fezzes and veils were out, the grand accretions of Persian and Arabic in the Turkish language were annulled to the point where Turks today can find it hard to read poems only a century old.
Pamuk himself, now in his 40's, began as a literary Westernizer, though set against the oppressiveness and corruption of Ataturk's heirs. He gorged on European and American literature, studied at the Iowa Writers Workshop and adopted a contemporary blend of modernist and postmodernist techniques. He wrote of the stagnation and backwardness that 80 years of modernization had not only failed to eradicate but, across broad expanses of Turkish geography and society, had barely touched.
He is not an ideologue or a politician or a journalist. He is a novelist and a great one (nobody — other than a small committee of Swedes — could rule out a Nobel). His job is not to denounce reality but to be haunted by it, as a medium is haunted.
The reality that possesses him is that Turkey's attempt to obliterate the Ottoman heritage in Turkey hacked away roots. It aimed not just at what was retrograde but at what was still stubbornly alive and perhaps precious. (It may have been futile, in any case, as the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism could suggest.)
Not to denounce the reality that haunts you does not mean to praise it. It is more a matter of speaking in a medium's divided voices — a painful division and, in the case of Pamuk, both confusing and exhilarating. Three of his earlier dissonant-voiced novels have been published and critically praised here, but not widely read.
The new one, "My Name Is Red," is by far the grandest and most astonishing contest in Pamuk's internal East-West war. Translated with fluid grace by Erdag M. Goknor, the novel is set in the late 16th century, during the reign of Sultan Murat III, a patron of the miniaturists whose art had come over from Persia in the course of the previous hundred years. It was a time when the Ottomans' confidence in unstoppable empire had begun to be shaken by the power of the West — their defeat at Lepanto had taken place only a few years earlier — as well as by its cultural vitality and seductiveness. (A chronology is given at the end; venturers into Pamuk should consult it at the start.)
The story, in a nutshell (containing multitudes), tells of two murders among Murat's court artists; one of Elegant, a master miniaturist, the other of Enishte, a cunningly complicated figure commissioned by the sultan to produce a book by his four finest artists, Elegant among them. The book is secret; the miniaturists only dimly suspect what it will amount to, and they barely admit to themselves the radically nontraditional nature of Enishte's commission.
Theirs is a secrecy of terror and shame: terror of being branded for heresy by the powerful Muslim clergy and punished by the sultan, whose dangerously elusive intentions are hidden from them. Shame, because they are imbued with the tradition they are violating, even as they both long and dread to violate it.
The art of classic miniature — implying here a much wider kind of order — depicts figures with great beauty and variety but ritually, impersonally and without individual characters or expressions. The paintings stand not as themselves but strictly as illustrations of text. The style the sultan's artists are surreptitiously instructed to adopt, on the other hand, is that of the Italian Renaissance. Figures are individual, portraits are of specific people, and even trees and dogs, are particulars. These paintings are not illustrations; they stand as works of art in their own right.
Why should this be heresy? For one thing, Islam enjoined against figuration; if miniatures were allowed it was because they were generic, a decoration of the text and subordinate to it. To portray individuals or objects for their own sake and without cover of words was to give them iconic standing. What made it worse was the introduction of perspective. A mosque far off would be smaller than a man, or even his dog, close up. People and things, the objection went, "weren't depicted according to their importance in Allah's mind but as they appeared to the naked eye."
Noncommitally, Pamuk sets out these rock-hard orthodoxies. Clearly he has no use for fatwas or fundamentalist rage. Elsewhere, though — his own civil war is fought on both sides with exquisite weapons — he sympathetically refines the implications. These, in fact, brush up against our own tradition's questioning of the place of art. Does it create its own order (or disorder) or does it discover, serve and bring out a larger, timeless order (or disorder)? One of the most beautiful passages in a book that abounds in them is the nearRilkean discourse of Master Osman, the head miniaturist and a stubbornly mystical traditionalist. Lovingly, he evokes a classic miniature that illustrates the legend of the lovers Husrev and Shirin.
"It's as if the lovers are to remain here eternally within the light emanating from the painting's texture, skin and subtle colors which were applied lovingly by the miniaturist. You can see how their faces are turned ever so slightly toward one another while their bodies are half-turned toward us — for they know they're in a painting and thus visible to us. This is why they don't try to resemble exactly those figures which we see around us. Quite to the contrary, they signify that they've emerged from Allah's memory."
There are other engrossing elaborations of an "Eastern" concept of art, in which all painting is an act of memory and foreordained, and blindness is the ideal condition for creating pure art, being free of sensory distraction and temptation. But "My Name Is Red" is not just a novel of ideas. Eastern or Western, good or bad, ideas precipitate once they sink to human level, unleashing passions and violence "Red" is chockful of sublimity and sin.
The story is told by each of a dozen characters, and now and then by a dog, a tree, a gold coin, several querulous corpses and the color crimson ("My Name Is Red"). It concerns investigation of the murders, the tales of the three master miniaturists who survive Elegant — one of them the killer — and Master Osman's long (considerably too long) perusal of the classic Persian miniatures in the sultan's library. Also myriad other incidents, scenes and characters gyrating wildly in an era of seismic shift.
Finally, and most precious, there is the passionate pursuit by Black, the murdered Enishte's deputy, of, Enishte's daughter Sekure. Elusive, changeable, enigmatic and immensely beguiling, she is the finest portrait in the book. Not a portrait, in fact: a Persian miniature. Her body is half turned toward us, as if she were in a painting and not a flesh-and-blood figure.
It is Black, turbulent, striving, at times absurd, who is flesh and blood. Their marriage is the union, always unfathomable and unsettled, of flat miniature and Renaissance perspective, of stylized image and individual portrait, of Eastern art and Western.
To sum up, and each time the sums come out different: the ideas in "Red" give fascination and energy, and work to hold together its turbulent narrative. They work and they fail; and in a way, though not entirely, the failure is Pamuk's success. No story of the darker churnings of the Ottoman regime, its rule by secrets, lies, conspiracies and chaos, would be real if it were lucid. Readers will have spells of feeling lost and miserable in a deliberate unreliability that so mirrors its subject: a world governed by fog.
They will also be lofted by the paradoxical lightness and gaiety of the writing, by the wonderfully winding talk perpetually about to turn a corner, and by the stubborn humanity in the characters' maneuvers to survive. It is a humanity whose lies and silences emerge as endearing and oddly bracing individual truths.