Impressions: My Name is Red – by Orhan Pamuk

It took me many months to finish reading news-making Turkish author Orhan Pamuk’s –My name is Red. It wasn’t an easy read and yet never once did I feel like giving up. It certainly kept me interested till the end. It is a thriller and the back page reviewers have likened it to Umberto Eco’s –Name of the Rose. But it isn’t as fluid as Eco’s novel. Perhaps some fluidity is lost in translation.

However, the book does become pertinent in light of the recent cartoon controversy. It’s about the gilders, illuminators and calligraphers in sixteenth century Turkey. It opens in the voice of a man who has recently been murdered – Elegant Effendi. He was the master gilder on a top secret book that had been commissioned by the Sultan. Elegant Effendi recalls his own brutal murder where he was beaten and his head crushed by a stone, by someone he trusted. His body then dumped into a well.

As the story goes on, the narrators change. Each chapter is narrated from the perspective of either an illustration within the unfinished book or one of the illustrators, calligraphers and the persons involved with them. One of the perspectives is that of an illustrated dog. The dog talks of the harsh treatment he receives in this land due to a prevalent misinterpretation of the Holy Quran. He tells us that the Prophet had nothing against dogs and that people assumed the dog was a detestable animal simply because the Prophet decided to offer a piece of his shawl to the cat and not to the dog.

The story is also told from the point of view of a lonely tree depicted in the center of an illustrated page and a horse that has been drawn running with both his forelegs extended. The illustrated horse questions the reality of this depiction since horses never run like hares.

The debate central to the book is whether or not paintings should be done in the style of the Frankish painters who saw and painted every wrinkle in a face, every item in a room, every fold in the clothes draping the people depicted. The old masters in Turkey were opposed to the imitation of the Frankish painters which was being encouraged by Enishte Effendi who had been commissioned by the Sultan to create just such a book. The ambitious project was expected to showcase the Sultan to the West in a manner that established him in their eyes as the Refuge of the World. There were many detractors in an age where senior artists routinely blinded themselves with a plumed needle so that they could paint from memory, exactly how god intended them to see things, for seeing things with their own eyes and depicting them as they saw them amounted to blasphemy.

Then one of the illustrators turns murderer and several pieces of the narration are in the murderer’s voice yet I found it extremely difficult to start guessing which one of them was guilty. So I kept reading on, trying to discover clues, none were forthcoming.

The murderer strikes again and kills Enishte Effendi, the man commissioned with the completion of The Book. He is killed after a lengthy debate with the murderer about the adoption of European illustration practices. The murderer has trouble accepting it.

The Sultan then leads an investigation. The form the investigation takes is quite intriguing. There are long passages about “signature” and “uniqueness” in the works of art. It wasn’t acceptable to develop unique styles, through centuries of apprenticeship, traditions were required to remain the same, one had to paint n the styles of the old masters. Exhibiting individuality was a sin punishable by law. Yet every artist tended to do make the slightest possible variation to the thing he was illustrating. If his specialty was horses, he drew the nostrils differently, if it was trees, there was something very subtly different about the trees. The investigators found a sheaf of unfinished horse sketches at the scene of the murder and asked all illustrators involved in the creation to draw horses. An old master was then asked to examine all collected drawings to determine which one of the illustrators who had apprenticed with him drew horses similar to the ones found at the scene of the crime. These particular horses were all drawn with torn nostrils, Mongolian horses, whose nostrils were torn to breathe easier in the rarefied Mongolian air.

The Old Master is finally able to single out the murderer although the knowledge isn’t shared with the reader immediately, much violence, intrigue and further discussions follow about illustrators, illustrations and the implications for religion and spirituality.

One particularly thought provoking chapter is the one that’s written from Satan’s point of view:

I, Satan

I am fond of the smell of red peppers frying in olive oil, rain falling into a calm sea at dawn, the unexpected appearance of a woman at an open window, silences, thought and patience. I believe in myself, and most of the time, pay no mind to what’s been said about me. Tonight, however, I’ve come to this coffeehouse to set my miniaturist and calligrapher brethren straight about certain gossip, lies and rumors.

Of course, because I am the one speaking, you’re already prepared to believe the exact opposite of what I have to say. But you’re smart enough to sense that the opposite of what I say is not always true, and though you might doubt me, you’re astute enough to take an interest in my words. You’re well aware that my name, which appears in the Glorious Koran fifty-two times, is one of the most frequently cited.

All right then, let me begin with God’s book, the Glorious Koran. Everything about me in there is the truth. Let it be known that when I say this it is with utmost humility. For there’s also the issue of style. It has always caused me great pain that I’m belittled in the Glorious Koran. But this pain is my way of life. This is simply the way it is.

It’s true, God created man before the eyes of us angels. Then He wanted us to prostrate ourselves before this creation. Yes it happened the way it is written in the “The Heights” chapter: While all the other angels bowed before man, I refused. I reminded all that Adam was made from mud, whereas I was created from fire, a superior element as all of you are familiar. So I didn’t bow before man. And God found my behavior, well, “proud.”

“Lower yourself from the heavens these heavens,” He said. “It’s beyond the likes of you to scheme for greatness here.”

“Permit me to live until Judgment Day,” I said, “until the dead arise.”

He granted His permission. I promised that during this entire time I would tempt the descendants of Adam, who’d been the cause of my punishment, and He said He’d send to Hell those I’d successfully corrupted. I don’t have to tell you that we’ve each remained true to his word. I have nothing more to say about the matter.

…I am not the source of all the evil and the sin in the world. Many people sin out of their own blind ambition, lust, lack of willpower, baseness and most often, out of their own idiocy, without any instigation, deception or temptation on my part…I’m not the one who tempts every fruit monger who craftily foists rotten apples upon his customers, every child who tells a lie, every fawning sycophant, every old man who has obscene dreams or every boy who jacks off. Sure, I work very hard so you might commit grave sins.

Like so, we arrive at the heart of the matter: figurative painting. I’ve heard that some of the miniaturists among us claim that I’m the one behind all this painting in the Frankish style. For centuries countless accusations have been leveled at me, but none so far from the truth.

Let’s start from the beginning. Everybody gets caught up in my provoking Eve to eat the forbidden fruit and forgets about how this whole matter began. No, it doesn’t begin with my hubris before the Almighty either. Before anything else, there’s the matter of His presenting man to us and expecting us to bow down to him, which met with my quite appropriate and decisive refusal – though the other angels obeyed.

This however is precisely what the new European masters are doing, and they’re not satisfied with merely depicting and displaying every single detail down to eye color, complexion, curvy lips, forehead wrinkles, rings and disgusting ear-hair of gentlemen, priests, wealthy merchants and even women – including the lovely shadows that fall between their breasts. These artists also dare to situate their subjects in the center of the page, as if man were meant to be worshipped, and display these portraits like idols before which we should prostrate ourselves. Is man important enough to warrant being drawn in every detail, including his shadow?…”

What a fascinating device used by Pamuk, to turn the pious, religious argument against drawing a certain way, on its head!

All in all, a book that keeps one interested till the end but it is certainly one where there has been some loss in translation. The ending, the resolution of the murder mystery, also fails to satisfy.

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