My Name is Red

I usually avoid reading the Nobel prize winners or the great litterateurs of the country. It takes a lot of convincing (from myself) to even pick up a book by any of them. The simple reason is that I often find them unreadable and if it is a translation, most of the times it is horrible.

One of the reason is that I do not know whether the translator comes from a culture close to the Author, which will mean a better translation than say, an American professor trying to translate a African author writing in his native language. It simply will miss out on the nuances of the local culture. That is why AK Ramanujan's translation of the Sangam poems still works.

So it was with a little wariness that I picked up 'My Name is Red'. It was a historical mystery and so was a bit of convinced that if it is not readable, it will be at least give some pointers on history. The novel is about 700 pages long and so a bit intimidating. But once you start reading, it throws so many possibilities that it is hard to put it down.

'My Name is Red' is, on a superficial pigeon-holing, a historical murder mystery. The murder happens in the very first page of the book and gets solved somewhere towards the end. That's one way of looking at it and that makes the book no different from the hundreds of thrillers around there. 

What makes the book work, at least for me, is the historical context of the murder and the mystifying history of the city of Istanbul itself. The story happens around 1595AD when the Ottoman power is at the maximum. The cultural life of the city comes to light in the pages as Black trundles his way around to find the murderer.

Elegant Effendi, who does the gilding work for the Sultan's books is murdered and the secret work that was assigned to Enishte Effendi by the Sultan himself is under threat. Enishte bring in his nephew Black to organize the work and to investigate the murder. Enishte himself is murdered next. Enishte's daughter, Shekure, who rejected Black's proposal earlier and which resulted in the self-imposed exile of Black for 12 years earlier, now marries him under the condition that he will find the murderer of her father before the consummation of the marriage. The suspicion falls on the three master miniaturists who were working on the secret book and how Black solves the mystery forms the novel. 

12 narrators tell us this story through various perspectives including the murderer himself. The horse in the painting, a fake Venetian coin, the severed head forms some of the unusual narrators with valuable insights into the working of the city that is Istanbul and the court of the Ottoman Sultan Murat III

The most interesting chapters are the ones narrated by Shekure and the Jewess washerwomen Esther as they provide an insight into the working of the 16th century Turkish household and on the place of women in the medieval Turkey. Shekure's narration is not just interesting but full of references to the way she perceives the world around her and the way she tries to solve the problem of her missing husband and marrying Black. When her father is murdered, she decides to keep it a secret till her divorce is completed and marriage with Black is done. She moved Black like a pawn in the chess board and accomplishes what she has set out to accomplish. 

The references to not just the history of the empire but of the daily life in the city of Istanbul and the daily household chores like haggling in the markets or cooking the pilaf makes for interesting read. Nizami, Sadi, Firdawsi are all quoted and the legends of Layla-Majnun and Husrev and Shirin are referenced constantly. So much was my interest stirred that, I ended up reading the story of Husrev and Shirin while reading the book. The book can be construed to be a love story within the murder mystery as well. In fact the love story works much better than the murder part.

The city of Istanbul looms with changing moods in every page of the story and plays an important part in the story itself. Mostly its snowing and the narrow lanes and noisy markets form the backdrop of every move of the characters. The Golden Horn is crossed multiple times and the palace of the Sultan dominates the city life and the life of the miniaturists. The three suspects, Stork, Butterfly and Olive, bring the techniques of the miniature book creation and the history of the miniature books themselves.

Beyond all these, the political life of the city and the East Vs West construct in the Frankish Vs Ottoman styles plays out the background for the murders. The style differences are mentioned and the Franks themselves along with their culture is looked upon as inferior. But as with everything, this was  about to change as the Ottoman empire staggers into its stagnation and ultimate decline and the west rises to humble it. 

A novel should not only illustrate a perspective but through its content should enlighten and force the reader to take notice of its sublimity. It is a difficult thing to achieve without overtly stating. The success of 'My name is Red' is that it achieves it without effort. The high tide of the Ottoman life, both politically and culturally is going to ebb and nothing illustrates it better than the painting itself.

A must-read.

My Name is Red
Orhan Pamuk

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2 comments: said...

In 70's I have read novels...later I lost interest in Novels. I still remember Irving wallace. His plot of novels may be identical, but the facts and history presented in "Plot", "Prize" and "Word" were remarkable. said...

In 70's I have read novels...later I lost interest in Novels. I still remember Irving wallace. His plot of novels may be identical, but the facts and history presented in "Plot", "Prize" and "Word" were remarkable.

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