Author: Orhan Pamuk
Finished on: 22 March 2016
Where did I get this book: A birthday present from my sister a couple of years ago
If this book were a song it would be Louis Armstrong’s We Have All The Time In The World. A one word description would be ‘luxurious’. Endless tangents; endless supplementary stories, anecdotes and fables. Pamuk is certainly in no hurry to get where he is going.
It probably says more about the way I read books these days than anything else, but My Name Is Red was hard work for at least half of its 650 pages. Quite often I can only get through five or ten pages at the end of a busy day when I am completely exhausted. And it took a long time before I was well enough orientated within the story to be able to pick it up again the next day, and understand where I was and what was going on. Pamuk may have all the time in the world, but I don’t.
When I did manage a couple of (fittingly) luxurious reading sessions of an hour or two, I enjoyed it much more. It is interesting to consider how much of the enjoyment of a book is about the book itself, and how much is about the circumstances in which we read it. My Name Is Red was a reminder that reading is not something that I should just do when there is nothing else around, or for ten minutes before I go to sleep. It deserves my full attention, and to be prioritised.
The main story is essentially a murder mystery. So far, so my cup of tea. But none of the suspects are anything approaching fully rounded characters (a reflection, I expect, of the Islamic art which is the subject of much of the story – which mustn’t depict ‘real’ people, animals or even landscapes). But when you don’t understand characters’ motivations or relationships, a whodunit becomes a simple matter of eeny meeny miny moe. It’s the opposite of The Little Friend. We find out who the killer is. But we couldn’t care less.
But leaving the central mystery aside, this book is actually pretty wonderful when you give it enough time and attention to fully immerse yourself in its world. It depicts a slice of fourteenth century Turkey that is populated overwhelmingly by men, most of them miniaturists whose job it is to illustrate books with painstakingly thoughtful pictures. It is about the tension between the traditional Islamic style of painting, and western or ‘Frankish’ art, which attempts to reflect the ‘real’ world, for example with perspective, and individual faces.
Painting in the new style demands such a 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 real tree, I want to be its meaning.
There is an awful lot of repetition of these central arguments. An awful lot. But, far from being boring, it is beautifully confident. This isn’t writing that, like Tartt’s, feels unedited. It is never sloppy. Rather it is meandering; not for those who like their narratives to pick a destination and head unswervingly towards it.
Pamuk plays with multiple narrators: human, animal and inanimate. By far the most engaging of these is Shekure, the long lost ‘beloved’ of our main protagonist Black; a widow with two sons in a precarious social position because her husband’s body was never found, meaning it is ambiguous whether she is now ‘owned’ by her father or her husband’s family. She is the ‘Frankish’ individually drawn character in this world of generically sketched men. Watching her maneuver, and manipulate the people around her, within the claustrophobic confines of a woman’s limited sphere of life in Istanbul at that time, is spectacularly impressive. Shekure was the anchor that kept me caring about where this story went and how it ended. I guess I’m just a Frankish westerner who’s accustomed to my illustrations with perspective.
So, I’m glad I persisted through those nights of getting lost and confused. It was worth it.
And I want to end this review with the following gorgeous extract, which describes one of the reasons why reading books is brilliant.
Over long years, as we gaze at book after book and illustration after illustration, we come to learn the following: A great painter does not content himself by affecting us with his masterpieces; ultimately he succeeds in changing the landscape of our minds. Once a miniaturist’s artistry enters our souls in this way, it becomes the criterion for the beauty of the world.