My Name Is Red

Release Date: 
August 26, 2002
Reviewed by: 

Reading an Orhan Pamuk novel sometimes feels more like studying a painting or experiencing a work of architecture. His pages are filled with observed details and impressions—color, texture, light, shadow and spaces—elegantly described. This shouldn’t be surprising, since Pamuk’s childhood passion was to become a painter and three years of his university training were to become an architect.

What is truly remarkable is the way that his painting and architectural sensibilities are so powerfully conveyed, using only written words. In 2006, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Pamuk told his audience: “As I sit at my table, for days, months, years, slowly adding new words to the empty page, I feel as if I am creating a new world. . . .” We can all be thankful that Pamuk’s new world consists not of buildings or paintings, but of new words.

My Name Is Red is a story about visual imagery. The setting is Istanbul in 1590—a city of great complexity and sophistication. Under the reign of Ottoman Sultan Murat III (1574–95) there was a thriving commercial environment, a flourishing social scene, and a healthy atmosphere of informed discussion. A culture of drawing studios, employing talented artists, had grown up in order to feed the demand for illustrated books that was encouraged by the sultan. But in 16th century Turkey, not unlike some areas of the world today, there were those who took a very conservative religious stance, which held that the work of the illustrators was blasphemous: by creating realistic images, especially those in the modern “Frankish style,” using the rules of linear perspective developed in Renaissance Italy, the artists were usurping the role of God. Since many of the main characters in Red are miniaturists (book illustrators) much of the discourse revolves around this conflict.

It’s hard to imagine that a debate over religious and aesthetic philosophy could result in such a fascinating story. But Pamuk is a storyteller with few equals.

The tale begins with the brutal murder of a freelance artist at the hands of an unknown assassin. The event is related in vivid detail by the “person” best qualified for the task: the corpse himself. So My Name Is Red is, ostensibly, the story of a murder investigation and, like most good crime novels, it digs deeply into the motives for the killing, an exercise which, in this case, involves more than a little detail and includes stories within stories, adding a rich historical context—part fact and part fiction. The story of the murder provides a framework for what is really a vivid portrait of a time and place that was witnessing a dramatic artistic and social upheaval.

Pamuk layers his story by allowing it to be told in the words of many narrators, each one picking up the thread of the story as it unfolds. Frequently, the storytellers are those who are active participants in the story (the hero Black, the heroine Shekure, the unidentified murderer, and others) as well as many informed observers, real and unreal (a corpse, illustrations in a book, Death, a dog, a coin, the color red and Satan). In this way, we get both first-hand observations and an informed, disinterested, colorful and sometimes unreliable commentary.

Visual artists would be comforted or perhaps amazed to know that topics that are hotly debated today were equally contentious in the 16th century. The question of style represents a continuing theme throughout the novel. Pamuk’s miniaturists wonder, Can a personal style emerge from the style of the studio where they are trained? Can artistic integrity survive when an artist adopts a style that comes from some other tradition—European or Chinese, for example? Is the acquisition of a “style” an appropriate objective for an artist? As one of Pamuk’s characters says, “For me, having a style would be worse than being a murderer.”—a sentiment that might be overheard in a drawing seminar even today.
Pamuk’s mastery of prose is most acute when describing the illustrations. His attention to detail is a perfect reflection of the miniaturist’s attention to detail. When he describes a drawing, he does so in a way that makes actually viewing the drawing seem slightly superfluous. And when he relates an ancient story that the drawing depicts, it is easy to lose track of whether he is retelling the story or describing the drawing. In so much of Pamuk’s writing, words and images blur. He leads us to short-circuit our optical sense and “see” the drawings in our minds.

There is a perception, frequently expressed in Red, that “seeing” without using one’s eyes constitutes a more perfect form of vision. In Pamuk’s 16th century Istanbul, blindness was the anticipated fate of aging master miniaturists. It was accepted as the reward for taxing one’s sight in life. To gain legitimacy in later years, some artists even pretended to be blind. On more than one occasion in the story, artists blind themselves in order to achieve a more idealistic vision of the world—a world viewed without the interference of external stimuli, half remembered and half imagined—just the way God sees it.

The idea of the world as God sees it began to erode rapidly with the great scientific awakening of the Renaissance. In the world of art and architecture, the ability to duplicate human vision and to preview architectural form and space began a revolutionary new era. And now, nearly 600 years since Leon Battista Alberti first published the laws of linear perspective in his treatise On Painting, the change that these laws have created in the world of art are well known to every art student. But the social disruption that was created is less well appreciated. In My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk draws a detailed and absorbing picture of 16th century Istanbul and the lives of those most profoundly affected by this artistic revolution.

The problem that perspective drawing created was that it placed ordinary humans in the position of observers, creators, commentators, in short, in the middle of things. To some, particularly (but not solely), in the Islamic world, this was blasphemous; the teachings of Islam had long forbidden the depiction of anything representational. This way of seeing and revealing was not a role assigned to mortals, but the domain of God. By placing humankind on this new level in the universe, the traditional order of things became threatened.

The traditional order is a touchy subject even in the modern world, where Creationism is still a widely held belief and where uncomplimentary depictions of the prophet Muhammad can result in a death sentence. As for the laws of linear perspective, after 600 years of advancing and perfecting perspective drawing, you would be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of art or architecture students nowadays who would have any idea of how to interpret them in any detail. Like so much else in the digital world, we have computer programs for that. For us, the idealized world is no longer a world as seen by God or man, but a virtual world in a digital universe.

The Medieval world in My Name Is Red is a sensual world—highly textural, subtly colored, pungent and romantic. But it also represents a sense of loss —a loss of tradition, a way of life, an everyday engagement with art. In Pamuk’s words, “If you ask me, My Name Is Red at its deepest level is about the fear of being forgotten, the fear of art being lost.” When Pamuk leads us into the world that his words have created, we become lost in a world that is also, regrettably, now lost.