Hywell Williams acclaims Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red, a sublime and timely parable of East and west
Saturday September 15, 2001
My Name is Red Orhan Pamuk 417pp, Faber
Two Europeans ("Franks* to the Turks and, to this day, Farangi to Iranians) stroll through a meadow. As accomplished miniaturist, their work sets out to render both the individualism of the object depicted and the inner truth which issues from the artist's mind. Theirs is the progressive story of western art itself, from Duccio to Picasso. The more inward the better, as we stand on predecessors' shoulders; sensibility shifts according to perspective. This is our version of modernity, with its varying styles of expression in both life and art.
Such painting, says one modernist to the other, means that "if you depicted one of the trees in this forest, a man who looked upon that painting could come here and, if he so desired, correctly select that tree from among the others". A tree with Ottoman roots relates the conversation and objects: "I don't want to be a tree, I want to be its meaning,"
Orhan Pamuk's novel is a philosophical thriller constructed around the clash between these two views of artistic meaning, which is also a chasm between two world civilisations. Great fiction speaks to its time; in the week of the American suicide bombings, this outstanding novel clamours to be heard.
Frankish novelty is represented by the brilliance of Venetian painting, which sweeps all before it with its portraits of faces set on achieving death-defying immortality through the palette. On the other hand is a tradition which seeks to record the objective truth as it might appear to Allah's dispassionate gaze (and may therefore be a subtle form of blasphemy). We all know that appearance deceives. A fool, thought Blake, sees not the same truth as the wise. But even the wise see differently. Islamic art took - and takes - its iconoclastic cue from that fact.
What followed was the rejection of the image in the name of a higher realism. Horses saunter in unison with forelegs simultaneously, "unnaturally", extended. What matters is the perfection of the single unvarying red, compounded from the dried beetle found in the hottest part of Hindustan - not the Frankish delicacy of graded shades, Pamuk's miniaturists grow blind in the obsessive service of art.
But what would be death to a Venetian artistic career is a source of distinction in Istanbul. The memory is so profound and the technique so perfect that the blind artist continues to render and refine. Besides, is not memory a muse for the Frankish painters as well? Necessarily so, for it intervenes in that moment between the eye's observation and the brush's application.
The background is Istanbul in 1591 - a year before the 1000th anniversary (by the Islamic calendar) of the Hegira, Mohammed's migration from Mecca to Medina. Inflation is draining the Sultan's coffers and the long Ottoman decline has begun. A decadence that is fiscal and political finds its objective correlative in art, for the Sultan will commemorate the Hagira by a series of paintings which blaspheme. These illustrations, secretly commissioned from a group of miniaturists, are to depict the empire as it seems to the individual eye. Frankish power has achieved the most Insidious of victories. It has changed - right at the top - the way a culture thinks of itself. It has colonised the mind and, therefore, dislocated the truth of another world.
My Name is Red is itself constructed around the individualising perspective; each chapter offers the varying first-person truths experienced by the characters. Pamuk achieves by narrative alchemy the empathetic understanding of both worlds, the dying and the emergent. Death is a subject, and is given its own chapter as a character, stalking the streets of windy Istanbul. Black, an illustrator, is charged with discovering the murderer who - faithful to the older artistic creed - has killed one of the perfidious new miniaturists. The irony is that the murderer betrays himself by a distinctive and detectable artistic style that proves his undoing. There is no escape from the new world's advance among its enemies. But there is also love - in a literary tradition which started with the Persians and was appropriated by the Turks.
This is a profound work with deep roots. Far from being a mere "historical novel", it has unforgettable narrative drive that unites past and present, as well as the high art with popular appeal that has made Pamuk into Turkey's greatest writer. Here the love of Husrev for Shirin lives again as he sees her bathing by moonlight; the sound of the lute players who accompany Hafiz's poems echo on the page. And there is also the love of Black for his widowed cousin Shekure, and the poignancy of Shekure's love for her children and murdered uncle.
The perspective is a writer's joy, which unites the generations and spans the centuries. And at its heart is an aesthetic tradition renewed and glorified without hatred or rancour. This is beauty itself, transfiguring and parabolic in its exploration of progress and loss, of seeming and being. "To God belongs the east and the west," says the Koran. In this rare and wonderful work, Pamuk can make the same claim to a transcending unity of understanding.