Murder and joy
07 September 2001
MY NAME IS RED. By Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Erdag Goknar. 448pp. Faber. Paperback, £10.99. TLS £8.99. - 0 571 20047 8
To say that Orhan Pamuk's new novel, My Name is Red, is a murder mystery is like saying that Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov is a murder mystery: it is true, but the work so richly transcends the conventional limitations of the genre as to make the definition seem almost irrelevant.
We are in Istanbul in the 1590s, and the main characters belong to an atelier of miniaturists commissioned to produce a masterwork for the Sultan. Populist religious preachers are stirring up sentiment against the whole concept of representational art (traditionally regarded with great suspicion in Islam), and the world of the artists themselves is split between those who would cleave to the age-old methods of miniature painting derived from Persian masters, and those who are beguiled by the new Western techniques of painting imported from Venice. Or, in the words of the miniaturists themselves, between those who strive to paint the world as God sees it, and those who strive to do so as man sees it. Two of the most eminent members of the circle embody the opposing views. One speaks for the eager welcoming of artistic hybridity: "We owe Bihzad and the splendor of Persian painting to the meeting of an Arabic illustrating sensibility and Mongol-Chinese painting. Shah Tahmasp's best paintings marry Persian style with Turkmen subtleties . . . . To God belongs the East and the West. May he protect us from the will of the pure and unadulterated." The other (in a chapter that turns into one of the most beguilingly lovely ten pages or so of art history I've ever read) pleads for a passionate immersion in the magnificent heritage of miniature painting itself, and the repudiation of all else:
"Meaning precedes form in the world of our art. As we begin to paint in imitation of the Frankish and Venetian masters . . . the domain of meaning ends and the domain of form begins . . . . What could be more exquisite than looking at the world's most beautiful pictures while trying to recollect God's vision of the world?" It is one mark (among many) of Pamuk's great skill as a novelist that, as he presents these wholly opposing views, his persuasive empathy with both seems total.
Violence disrupts this hothouse world exclusively devoted to the production and understanding of art. First, one of the miniaturists, whom the others suspect of having developed secret sympathies with the fundamentalists who would condemn all representational art as the work of the devil, is mysteriously killed; and then the master who has advocated artistic hybridity and a selective welcoming of Western techniques is also murdered. A marginal figure in the atelier decides he will solve the murders, but much of his time and mental energy are already taken up by his desperate love for a beautiful woman who has two young sons, and who may or may not be a widow. These narratives of detection and desire mingle to form the rest of the novel's very complicated and highly satisfying plot.
Pamuk's empathy with the nostalgic beleaguered traditionalist who knows his world is passing is almost heartbreakingly persuasive, but the technique of his novel proclaims that he himself is a magnificently accomplished hybrid artist, able to take from Eastern and Western traditions with equal ease and flair. He has frequently been compared to Borges and Calvino. It is certainly true that he shares Borges's love of mazey intricacies, and he also seems to be beguiled by the glamour of distant heroic violence in the way that Borges can be. Like Calvino, he delights in multiple perspectives (I lost count of the number of narrators in My Name is Red, but there are at least eight), as well as in the elegant manipulation of stock folk-tale-like characters and tropes - another Calvino speciality. But both Borges and Calvino, despite their large output, are essentially miniaturists, specializing in brief, preternaturally resonant, parable-like forms.
Pamuk has written a book that is over 400 pages long, and which has all the exuberance and richly descriptive density of a nineteenth-century European novel. He can sound like Stendhal (on love), or Dostoevsky (on guilt and sin), or Dickens (in his sudden homing in on the memorable detail that brings a moment alive before the reader's eyes), or Balzac (in the marvellous plethora of evocative particulars with which he can describe a scene). His use of the Eastern tradition is equally virtuosic, and a joy to participate in. His knowledge of the details of life in sixteenth-century Istanbul is clearly extensive and used to often ravishing effect. Many of the circumstances in which the characters find themselves echo moments (as the characters themselves point out) in classical Persian poetry. These latter are taken chiefly from the works of Nezami (twelfth century), and from Ferdowsi's Shahnameh (eleventh century). Nezami in particular is omnipresent in the book's structure; his Khosrow (or using the Turkish spelling Husrev) and Shirin are the inspiration for the love story in the novel (even the heroines' names are similar, Shirin means "sweet", and Shekure, the name of the beloved in Pamuk's novel, is cognate with our "sugar"); the detection part of the plot makes many allusions (these include the book's title) to Nezami's masterpiece, The Seven Portraits (Haft Paykar). Western readers unfamiliar with this literature will miss specific references, but any reader will be aware of the pervasive presence of traditional tropes in the book's narrative, as they are openly referred to.
The techniques of classical Islamic literature are used to anchor the book within a tradition of local narrative, but they can also be used with a wonderfully witty and distancing lightness of touch. For example, it was common for classical Persian authors to conclude a poem with their name appearing somewhere in the last line; the last word of "Khosrow and Shirin", the poem behind the love story in Pamuk's novel, is the name of the author, "Nezami". Pamuk's first name is "Orhan". One of the children of Shekure, the beloved in My Name is Red, is also called Orhan. As the novel closes, Shekure tells us that she will entrust the telling of her tale to Orhan, but we must not believe everything he says because, "For the sake of a delightful and convincing story, there isn't a lie Orhan wouldn't deign to tell." This repeats a familiar trope from Islamic literature, but it also ironizes it.
And this combination itself echoes a similar moment in Golestan by the thirteenth-century author Sa'di', in which the author insistently presents himself as a traveller (with the implication that he knows about distant places we haven't been to), but then tells us that you cannot believe travellers because they tell lies.
But brilliant technician though Pamuk undoubtedly is, it would be wrong to give the impression that the novel is chiefly memorable as an aesthetically intricate formal tour de force. Similarly, although one of the great pleasures of reading it is our sense of being transported in a convincing manner to sixteenth-century Istanbul, this prodigious act of historical re-creation also seems less significant in an assessment of the novel's power than other factors. The heart of the novel is surely the long discussion on the nature of art, its relation to reality, and the relation of the artist, especially the artist of great talent, to whatever traditions he may inherit or encounter. The pages that deal with this are intensely exhilarating to read, and the author (or his surrogate) has much that is arresting and provocative to say on the subject. Connected with this concern for the artist's identity is the preoccupation with a society's identity, and it is hard here not to draw parallels with the state of modern Turkey. Just as Pamuk's sixteenth-century artists felt they were uneasily caught between East and West, and were being forced to make choices they would rather evade, so modern Turkish society notoriously feels itself poised between the pull of tradition and the lure of Western versions of what life is, or should be, about. In both the novel's world and in contemporary Turkey, the presence of religious fundamentalists threatening violence is not to be discounted. If we consider the novel to be in some way "about" Turkish identity, it is surely significant that Pamuk belongs to the first generation of Turkish intellectuals since Ataturk's revolution which has begun to explore the artistic heritage of the Ottoman courts as a significant, and not wholly negative, cultural legacy.
This novel is then formally brilliant, witty and about serious matters. But even this inclusive description does not really capture what I feel is the book's true greatness, which lies in its managing to do with apparent ease what novelists have always striven for but very few achieve.
It conveys in a wholly convincing manner the emotional, cerebral and physical texture of daily life, and it does so with great compassion, generosity and humanity. This is particularly so in the treatment of the love story, which seems on the surface so romantically extravagant, but becomes as it progresses so human, endearing and humane. Despite the fact that the novel deals with murder, with the passing of an era, and with people caught in ineluctable tragedy, the chief emotion the prose conveys is joy, the pleasure of being alive, of being able to connect with other people, and of having the opportunity to give oneself to a calling or a person with passionate commitment. It is this that makes the book such an extraordinary achievement.
It is customary to carp a little in a review of this nature, and though there is very little to fault in Pamuk's novel, one or two minor matters can perhaps be placed on the other side of the ledger. There seem for example to be a couple of small slips in the use of the Persian legendary material. At one point Rostam's forked arrow piercing the eyes of Alexander (the Great) is referred to; it was Esfandyar whom Rostam killed in this way, not Alexander.Similarly Seyavash (from the Shahnameh) is referred to as "avenging his brothers"; this seems to be a confusion with the Iraj story, as Seyavash has no brothers (or none whom he is interested in avenging). However, as the whole novel is narrated by different characters who participate in its plot, it may be that these are not authorial slips at all, but that we are meant to register them as errors made by the particular speakers. The translation is in the main very felicitous indeed, and I was frequently struck by how very well the English read. However, there are a few slips: "illicit" for "elicit", "lay" for "lie" (this last is becoming common in new novels), "fell" for "felled" (as in "he felled the hero with a single blow"), and "Your sympathy and understanding are much obliged", when the meaning is clearly "I am much obliged to you for your sympathy and understanding".