Review: My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk

In Istanbul, in the late 1590s, the Sultan secretly commissions a great book: a celebration of his life and his empire, to be illuminated by the best artists of the day- in the European manner. But when one of the miniaturists is murdered, their master has to seek outside help. Did the dead painter fall victim to professional rivalry, romantic jealousy or religious terror?

This book is beautiful! It took hold of me right from the beginning where we hear the laments of a corpse at the bottom of a well. Orhan Pamuk has such artistry with language and the translator has transported it like a murderous lovely dream full of voices and stars into English.

Pamuk switches from starkly different voices as easily as embroidering the story with a new colour of thread. I don’t know quite how he does it but he is one of the best writer’s I’ve ever experienced in immersing you in day to day life of his world so vividly that you hear the noises of the bustling coffee shops, the crowded narrow streets, the heat and the cold and the loneliness and horror of the bottom of a well. His writing is literary escapism, I forgot I was inside my own body.

Throughout the mystery of who killed the miniaturist we see the story though the eyes of people, paintings, animals and even a piece of gold. When I reached the chapter of the thoughts of the colour red and the voice Pamuk uses for it in all it’s vibrancy and colour I couldn’t stop smiling in glee at the mastery of this storyteller.

The culture clash between the artists of East and West was a major thread in the plot and I learnt that I knew almost nothing of art of the Ottoman Empire which was described so frequently and detailed throughout the story. Having grown up in Britain I am used to European art so at first when looking at art from different cultures they seem unusual. I have not considered before what European art must look like to other parts of the world.

Pamuk illustrates differences beautifully in the chapter from the voice of a painting of a tree.

A great European master minituarist and another great master artist are walking through a Frank meadow discussing virtuosity and art. As they stroll, a forest comes into view before them. The more expert of the two says to the other: “Painting in the new style demands such talent that if you depicted one of the trees in this forest, a man who looked upon that painting could come here, and if he so desired, correctly select that tree from among the others.”

I thank Allah that I, the humble tree before you, have not been drawn with such intent. And not because I fear that if I’d been thus depicted all the dogs in Istanbul would assume I was a real tree and piss on me: I don’t want to be a tree, I want to be it’s meaning.

As we are introduced to a number of human voices and the cast of characters it is tempting to try to figure out which is the murderer seeing as it is definitely one of these people. I did not especially love any of the characters the only one I was a little attached to was Black, the man who attempts to find the murderer and deal with his love for the beautiful Shekure.

I recommend this book for the beautiful use of language and surprising use of narration, the mysterious and philosophical plot, the depiction of the culture clash in Eastern and Western art and the stunning portrayal of Istanbul. It is funny, dark, provoking and intelligent and I will definitely be reading another Orhan Pamuk novel.


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