My Name Is Red isn’t Orhan Pamuk’s most recent book, but it might be his best. This is a surprise because Snow was so good, but in fact the books make a great pair. One is as current as yesterday’s newspaper and paints a frozen world of whites and grays, while the other takes place in 1591 and bursts with color and pure vision. Both books are classics, in my opinion, but My Name Is Red is the bigger book, and reaches for the grander statements.
Orhan Pamuk has a calm and modest demeanor, but this book is much a tour de force as anything Chuck Pahlaniuk’s ever written, and it’s nearly as manic. The book is mainly a murder mystery, set among a highly exclusive community of artists, soldiers and politicians in Istanbul at the height of that city’s golden age (the Sultan himself even makes a cameo appearance in this book). The best painters in the Ottoman Empire work here as manuscript illuminators, or miniaturists. They are treated like celebrities, and their talents are viewed as mystical expression of Islamic ideals by their customers and fans. But the artists struggle to find their artistic boundaries, because their religion disdains representative illustration, which they all indulge in, as a form of vanity.
Much of the dialogue in the book revolves around this problem, and in this sense My Name Is Red is similar to other works that encapsulate religious debates, like T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral or Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. Pamuk, however, is clearly more interested in art than in religion (he used to be a painter himself), as are most of the characters in the book. In fact several of them are literally crazed by the beauty — and the forbidden vanity — of visual art.
And one is more crazed than the others, because he starts killing people. That’s the setup, and the murder plot gives the book plenty of forward momentum. But it’s Pamuk’s literary intelligence that raises this story to a much higher level than that of, say, a Turkish Da Vinci Code. Pamuk always writes with great control, and in this book he carries on a unique narrative conceit, allowing the story to unfold in a series of connected vignettes told in first person by each of the main characters in turn.
The first character to speak is the corpse of the murder victim. We then hear from a soldier, the woman he loves, a dog, each of the artists, a Jewish matchmaker, a horse, Satan, etc. As a writer, Pamuk probably got this idea from James Joyce and Ulysses (the vivid sex scene that closes the book, told in the voice of earth mother/mystical wife Shekure, recalls Ulysses as well). But, as an artist, Pamuk may also have borrowed this idea from Pablo Picasso, because his narrative has the same concise super-logical effect — seeing the world from God’s point of view — as one of Picasso’s Cubist paintings.
An overly clever narrative technique can doom a book where it doesn’t belong, but this unique approach is a perfect match for this story, which is all about seeing. When the story finally reaches its crisis, I am pleased to report the surprise ending does deliver a strong punch (and it was better than any of the surprise endings I’d guessed). Here, the book begins to feel like The Alienist by Caleb Carr, as we approach the inner mental state of the killer and discover the secret object of art he has been hiding from the others, which he killed to protect.
I was also intrigued to discover a short chronology of Ottoman history at the book’s end, which explains that one of the book’s characters, the aging master artist Osman who yearns for blindness as the ultimate proof of sublime vision, is based on a real person. There is also a suggestion that another key character is based on a historical figure named Velijan, but Google turns up nothing about this name and I suspect Pamuk is just getting metafictional with us again.