Thursday, October 19, 2006

On Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red

Orhan Pamuk's novel My Name Is Red is that rare book: a contemporary work that can already be thought of as one of the truly essential novels. Although the Nobel Prize, which was awarded to Pamuk last week, is given not for a single book but for a body of work, there can be little doubt that My Name Is Red stands at the centre of Pamuk's oeuvre.

The first chapter of the novel is narrated by a corpse. "I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of the well […] no one, apart from that vile murderer, knows what's happened to me," he begins. There is no one to hear the corpse, yet his words assume a listener. That listener is the reader, and My Name is Red is full of such speakers who, like agitated and unruly witnesses at a public hearing, jostle each other to press upon the reader the stories of their lives and the shape of their feelings.

Pamuk's novel is set in sixteenth-century Istanbul, at the time of the zenith of the Ottoman empire, and it is at different levels a murder mystery, a love story, a meditation on the significance of art in man's life, a parable of the relationship between the East and the West, and an experiment in narrative plurality.

The novel's cast of characters (most of whom are also narrators) include the clever and beautiful Shekure, whose husband has gone missing in war and who therefore may be a widow; Shekure's father 'Enishte' ('Uncle') Effendi, a senior functionary of the Sultan's court; and Black, Enishte's nephew and the protagonist of the story, back in Istanbul after having fallen in love with Shekure when younger and being rejected by her and banished by Enishte from his home. There is also Hasan, Shekure's brother-in-law, also obsessively in love with her; and a band of calligraphers and illustrators employed in a thriving art, the production of illuminated manuscripts illustrating old tales and legends under the Sultan's patronage.

The back-story of My Name Is Red is the encounter of some of the men at the forefront of Ottoman art with an entirely different style of art just beginning to take hold of the human imagination in the West: the art of human portraiture. The clash between two views of artistic practice could not be more total. Ottoman art is above all a religious art. Conscious that idolatry - and by extension painting - is forbidden by the Koran, it produces pictures mainly as illustrations of well-known tales and stories, as ostensible aids in their understanding, and with due care taken to portray the world from "an elevated Godlike perspective," as if leading us to "God's vision."

But the new Western art of portraiture, which Enishte Effendi first encounters on an official visit to Venice, privileges the human subject, depicting the unique and individual characteristics of each face it portrays, and treating painting as an end in itself and an attempt to replicate reality. Enishte describes this art to Black as appearing to embody "a sin of desire, like growing arrogant before God, like considering oneself of utmost importance, like situating oneself at the center of the world." But he is also utterly fascinated by it for the same reason: it seems to immortalise each man it depicts, perpetuate in remarkable fashion his finite life. Enishte remarks with wonder:
If your face was depicted in this fashion only once, no one would ever be able to forget you, and if you were far away, someone who laid eyes on your portrait would feel your presence as if you were actually nearby. Those who had never seen you alive, even years after your death, could come face-to-face with you as if you were standing before them.
His Sultan is equally fascinated by the new art of portraiture. Desirous of having his portrait painted in this fashion, he instructs Enishte to prepare in secret, using his workshop's best artists, a book about his reign on the occasion of the thousandth year of the Hegira, to be presented to the Venetians as a marvellous symbol of the Sultan's power. It is to help him with the book - as also the management of skilled and sensitive artists who must now work in secret, and both personally consider as well as provoke in their wider society the question of blasphemy - that Enishte has recalled Black to Istanbul. And Black, still lovestruck after all these years, is obviously keen to re-explore the question of whether Shekure, now probably a widow, is interested in him. Observing the specimens of portraiture shown to him by his uncle, Black thinks:
Had I taken Shekure's portrait with me, rendered in the style of the Venetian masters, I wouldn't have felt such loss during my long travels when I could scarcely remember my beloved, whose face I'd left somewhere behind me. For if a lover's face survives emblazoned on your heart, the world is still your home.
Black is a solitary, ruminative sort: his troubled life leads him to assert that "for men like myself, that is, melancholy men for whom love, agony, happiness and misery are just excuses for maintaining eternal loneliness, life offers neither great joy nor great sadness". But he pursues Shekure enthusiastically, and all of a sudden she agrees to marry him if he agrees to certain conditions. Suddenly it is Black's wedding day: he can scarcely believe how he has suddenly been presented "the greatest of gifts…after so much suffering". He finds an imam and goes with him across the Bosphorus river in search of a legal functionary, and on the way imagines how a miniaturist might paint this scene of his life, tinged with the slight foreboding that is a characteristic aspect of his thought:
…the miniaturist ought to depict us amid mustachioed and muscled oarsmen, forging our way across the blue Bosphorus towards Uskudar in the four-oared red longboat we'd boarded at Unkapani. The preacher and his skinny dark-complexioned brother, pleased with the surprise voyage, are engaging the oarsmen in friendly chatter. Meanwhile, amid blithe dreams of marriage that play ceaselessly before my eyes, I stare deep into the waters of the Bosphorus, flowing clearer than usual on this sunny winter morning, on guard for an ominous sign within its currents. I'm afraid, for example, that I might see the wreck of a private ship below. Thus, no matter how joyously the miniaturist colours the sea and the clouds, he ought to include something equivalent to the darkness of my fears and as intense as my dreams of happiness - a terrifying-looking fish, for example - in the depths of the water so the reader of my adventure won't assume all is rosy.
Not the least of the novel's pleasures is the whiff and the savour of its keen metaphysical intelligence, its willingness to engage with life's deepest questions. One such instance appears when Enishte Effendi is murdered. His soul ascends to heaven led by an angel and talks of its experiences, like the corpse with whom the book begins. Slowly coming to terms with his existence in this new realm ("Eternal puzzles and dark enigmas that only the dead might understand were now being revealed and illuminated, bursting forth brilliantly one by one in thousands of colours"), Enishte suddenly senses that he is in the presence of the divine. He is overcome by fear and ecstasy, as also anguish over his probable sin of blasphemy. He blurts out some words and hears a response, not aloud, but "in my thoughts". This is how the matter proceeds:
I could barely contain my excitement.
"All right then, what is the meaning of it all, of this…of this world?"
"Mystery," I heard in my thoughts, or perhaps, "mercy," but I wasn't certain of either.
A startling double note is struck here, of confusion and unintentional comedy on the one hand, and profundity and religious awe on the other. Taken by itself, either of the two possible replies would have been anticlimactic, but blurred together as they are here, they are marvellously satisfying.

As these short excerpts may reveal, Pamuk's narrative artistry, his appetite for ideas, his talent for patterning (a method of producing meaning through the repetition or the contrast of words, thoughts, or symbols), and his flair for observation all find expression in the most remarkable sentences, their beautiful and startling cadences transmitting a sense of agile minds roused to a high pitch. It is hard to think of another book in which practically every sentence has such an aesthetically pleasing shape and a ring to it. Erdag Goknar's marvellous translation has produced a book that, had it been written originally in English, would stand alongside the greatest works of English prose.

The first chapter of My Name Is Red can be found here.

And here are some essays by Pamuk: "Freedom to Write", delivered as a PEN lecture earlier this year; "In Kars and Frankfurt", a piece which considers the novel "as a way of thinking, understanding and imagining, and also as a way of imagining oneself as someone else"; "A Private History", in which he talks about the research that went into My Name Is Red and his use of autobiographical matter in the book; "City of Ghosts", an extract from Istanbul, his book about the city that has nourished his imagination; "The Anger of the Damned", a piece written after the 9/11 attacks; "Humour May Be Our Only Hope", on the Turkish elections of 2002; "Road to Rebellion", on driving through the city of Tehran; "A private reading of Andre Gide's public Journal", on the French writer Andre Gide; and "On Trial", an account of going on trial in Turkey last year for a reference to the Armenian massacre of 1915.

Update, October 30: And here's a new essay by Pamuk on himself and his work, "Implied Author" ("To read a dense, deep passage in a novel, to enter into that world and believe it to be true - nothing makes me happier, nothing binds me more to life. I also prefer it if the writer is dead, because then there is no little cloud of jealousy to darken my admiration. The older I get, the more convinced I am that the best books are by dead writers.")


Hari said...

Wonderful review! My Name is Red is one of my favorite books.

christopher higgs said...

I'm a new visitor. I wanted to tell you that I like what you're doing, and I intend to return, so I thought I'd leave a fingerprint.

I enjoyed reading your review of Pamuk's masterpiece (also one of my favorites).