THE MYSTERY OF ISTANBUL
Book Review, 15 January 2002
Set in Ottoman Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red is a beautiful novel which blends fact with fiction to relate a compelling tale of murder and intrigue. Our author, a research assistant at Oxford University's Ashmolean Museum, examines the accuracy of the book's historical detail while considering the effectiveness of Pamuk's prose.
The year is 1591. One of the Sultan's chief miniaturists has been murdered and left to rot in a well. The corpse, we discover, had been working on a manuscript "in the European style", commissioned secretly by the Sultan from unofficial sources. Painting, especially "in the European style", is universally condemned by the ulema and Ottoman traditionalists, who want to rid the city of such heretical tendencies. The threat of civil unrest is never far beneath the surface and there is a murderer lurking amongst the painters.
Black, the hero, has been summoned back to Istanbul, after a twelve-year absence, by his maternal uncle Enishte – mastermind of the manuscript, and father of Black's eternally beloved, Shekure. When a second murder is committed, it falls upon Black to identify the culprit, doubtless one of the artists, driven insane by the implications of painting "like the Venetians." Black's quest to find the murderer takes us through a series of philosophical discussions and moral anecdotes about the nature of art, the essence of "style" and the relationship between God and the artist. But with only three days' grace granted by the Sultan, Black must work fast to discover some clue, some slip of the brush, which will betray the murderer's identity.
"Try to discover who I am" invites the murderer," from my choice of words and colours, as attentive people like yourselves might examine footprints to catch a thief. This, in turn, brings us to the issue of "style", which is now of widespread interest: Does a miniaturist, ought a miniaturist, have his own personal style? A use of colour, a voice all of his own?"1
Pamuk's own "style" is tantalisingly theatrical, the story told through a series of dramatic monologues, each speaker more paranoid, malignant and self-obsessed than the one before. Black is a hopeless romantic, slavishly dedicated to Shekure's every whim and eager to please all figures in authority. Shekure is highly devious, totally two-faced and eminently dislikeable. The artists are egoists par excellence and the Master Painter, Nakkash Osman, is an unwavering traditionalist and an unbearable snob.
In the best tradition of murder mysteries one feels that any one of the characters, main, or even subsidiary, could be the guilty one, and the most likely candidate changes with every turn of a page. The red herrings are so beautifully woven into passages full of meaty descriptions and philosophical asides that they do not distract from the flow of the story. The different tales told by the characters do form a conceivable scenario, wonderfully confused and subjective, riddled with ambiguity and open to all sorts of interpretation.
Pamuk's attention to detail and historical accuracy is dazzling. The "European" manuscript is apparently contemporary with the Book of Festivities being prepared in the royal atelier under the command of Nakkash Osman. The Sûrname-i Hümayun, or Book of Festivities was prepared by Nakkash Osman and Seyyid Lokman in the early 1590's to commemorate the circumcision ceremony of Murat III's three sons in 1582. 2
Mention is also made of the Hünername and Zafername manuscripts, also being produced around the same time in the royal atelier. The folios Pamuk describes from the Sûrname-i Hümayun are vividly brought to life through his careful recounting of the colours, characters and construction of each plate. His descriptions of all the different social groups – from the Sultan and his most intimate officials at the highest levels of Ottoman society, to a transvestite storyteller, a Jewish clothier and a blind Tartar beggar – illuminate brilliantly the rich cultural diversity of the city. The Istanbul described is palpably real, from the grim images of Fener in the fog, dark labyrinths of streets peopled with beggars and bandits, to the exaltedly glorious descriptions of processing through the courts and gardens of Topkapi Sarayi.
The details of the journeys and provincial postings Black has undertaken, the manuscripts Nakkash Osman has seen, the endless allusions to old Persian legends, all have something of the quality of the old travelogues relating journeys through the Ottoman domains. In places the prose even seems slightly Ottoman, like an elaborate description by Evliya Chelebi or a fawning ode by Mustafa Ali. Never more so than in passages about Topkapi Sarayi palace, when Black first stands in the presence of He Himself, the Brilliantly Illumined, the Denizen of Paradise, The Ottoman Sultan, Murat III. In this respect Erdag Göknar's translation is impeccable.
Pamuk's meditations on Ottoman and Islamic artistic "style" are thought provoking and intuitive. Nakkash Osman says individual "style" is a flaw, an indication of the inability of the artist to render the world as God sees it. Individual artistic expression does not exist. "Style" is the way a particular workshop or painters from a particular city paint. He believes that it is only through endless repetition, copying the forms crystallised by the old Persian masters, like Bihzad, that the artists can achieve something approaching virtuosity in their craft. The closer to this learned perfection an artist approaches, the less he needs to use his eyes. The most gifted purposefully blind themselves, to stop the light from interfering with their memorised vision of God's world. A whole host of legendary greats illustrate the discussions: Husrev and Shirin, Leyla and Majnun, Shah Tahmasp, Sultan Ibrahim Mirza, Sadiki Beg, Sivayush, Siyah Kalemi, Rasid ad-Din, to name but a few.
See Nurhan Atasoy, Sûrname-i Hümayun: An Imperial Celebration, Istanbul, 1997.
It is the constant and unpredictable fluctuation between fact and fiction that makes Pamuk's novel so simultaneously exciting and aggravating. One is never sure where the border lies between the two facets of Pamuk's "style" – historical or literary, simple or surreal, true or false? My Name is Red is such a book that its own structure imitates its subject matter. Orhan Pamuk has managed to "create" a kind of moebius strip of a story, a depiction of a novel about depiction framed on either side by an appeal to reality. He dedicates it to his own daughter, Rüya, and names three of the main characters, Shekure and her two sons Orhan and Shevket, after his own mother, himself and his brother. Take from it what you will, whatever your "style" of reading.
My Name is Red is warm, witty, funny, observant, philosophical and stunningly beautiful. Read it soon.
1. My Name is Red, p. 17
2. See Nurhan Atasoy, Sûrname-i Hümayun: An Imperial Celebration, Istanbul, 1997.