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Tuesday, January 01, 2002

Book Reviews

Militant Modernism

My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Erdag M. Goknar. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 417 pages, $25.95.




Orhan Pamuk is far and away Turkey’s most celebrated and, quite amazingly, most popular novelist, selling hundreds of thousands of his highly literary fictions in a country plagued by illiteracy. Four of his six novels – The White Castle, The Black Book, The New Life, and now My Name Is Red– have been translated into English and nineteen other languages. Born in Turkey in 1952, Pamuk trained as an architect, studied at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and spent almost a decade living and writing in Istanbul before being published in 1982. Now he writes for and is reviewed in the London Review of Books and New York Review of Books, and his novels are published by the most distinguished presses in England and the United States.

Why is Pamuk so prominent in the West? I can’t answer that question, but I can speculate about Pamuk’s American reputation. His earlier novels have been compared to Kafka’s allegories, Calvino’s fabulations, Nabokov’s chess games, and Eco’s information-laden detective stories. The Black Book and The New Life also have a Borgesian bookishness, not just that librarian’s learned disquisitions but also his reflections on books as odd objects with strange effects. My Name Is Red combines all of these qualities as Pamuk braids together a murder mystery and love story set in late sixteenth-century Istanbul.

A young man named Black falls in love with Shekure, his cousin and the daughter of his art teacher, Enishte. Judged an unsuitable husband, Black leaves Istanbul and art for clerical jobs in the far-flung Ottoman empire. When he returns from 12 years in exile, Black finds himself still in love with Shekure, who may or may not be widowed. Black also finds that a gilder working for Enishte on a secret book project has been murdered. Soon afterwards, Enishte is also murdered, and Black becomes both suspect and investigator, with his marriage to Shekure hinging on his ability to solve the crimes.

The primary suspects are three miniaturists illustrating Enishte’s book, which was commissioned by Sultan Murat III for presentation to a Venetian doge. The painters – given the names Olive, Butterfly, and Stork by their teacher, the Head Illuminator Osman – have various motives for killing the gilder and their boss, reasons financial and personal but mostly esthetic. Sixteenth-century Ottoman painting was caught between East and West, between old Muslim suspicion of iconography and new European portraiture and perspectivism. Painters in Istanbul did represent human and other living forms, but only in an extremely traditional and conventionalized manner. Enishte, however, is much influenced by a European tour and forces his illustrators toward what centuries later would be called “modernism,” which involved attention to unique subjects and pride in an individual style. Both offended Muslims for whom all belonged to Allah, whose distant abstract gaze painters attempted to imitate.

Black, no longer an artist, has to reacquaint himself with the subtle permutations of this esthetic argument because finding the killer may depend on recognizing some minute individual feature of his style. The elderly master illustrator, Osman, explains much to Black and institutes a test in which each suspected artist has to draw a horse. Their renditions are meant to be valuable clues to their attitudes toward Enishte and his modernizing formal impulse.

The form of My Name Is Red is militantly on the side of modernism, of individualism, for the novel’s several stories are told in the voices of all major characters, some minor folks, and even in the “voices” of a dog, tree, horse, and a counterfeit gold coin. As the murderer says near the end of the novel, “as the methods of the Europeans spread, everyone will consider it a special talent to tell other men’s stories as if they were one’s own.” (397).

If Pamuk’s form is European and contemporary, the content is Asian, historical, and, to this reader, often esoteric, with page after page spent describing centuries of illuminated books and their illuminators. If you’re not a student of Islamic art, the names, cities, and workshops from Persia to Afghanistan will have the opaque density of Borges’s short story, “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbit Tertius,” about the invented language of a made-up land. Even more alien than Pamuk’s historical material is the concept of artistic economy manifested in My Name is Red. It is more than 400 pages long and seems about twice that because Pamuk is frequently repetitive in his esthetic discussions, often digressive, and sometimes both. Pamuk’s excess in this maximalist fiction about miniaturists is not that of, say, Thomas Pynchon or David Foster Wallace, who gleefully exhibit their inventiveness. Pamuk’s parables and elaborations are more like those of ancient storytellers or, in the murderer’s words, the convoluted “ornamentation and intricate design” (393) of Islamic art.

Pamuk thus creates a triple Otherness: temporal, cultural, and esthetic. Yet My Name Is Red also seems familiarly postmodern, for its characters debate within it the very methods Pamuk uses to generate his Otherness. And at the end, like Nabokov tipping his hand and hat, Pamuk reveals that the whole book was composed by one of Shekure’s children – a boy named Orhan. Only occasionally are readers allowed enough distance from the esthetic details and self-reference to see that My Name Is Red provides a distant mirror of contemporary Turkey and other Islamic countries. A Muslim clergyman named Nusret Hoja from Erzurum and his followers demand moral and esthetic conservatism to repel ideas flowing in from the West. The Islamists end up killing an irreverent storyteller who amuses the painters. A further layer of allegory is the all-powerful Sultan, who represents contemporary Turkish authoritarianism and is willing to accept Western influence to keep control of his land.

The Black Book and The New Life were also allegorical, but they were set in very recent history and had more bite. Pamuk has spoken against both religious zealots and the ineffectual secular leaders of his country. The method of his novels suggests, however, that he cannot too directly confront the extremes between which Turkey is often poised. In his cultural critiques, Pamuk is neither as flamboyant as Rushdie nor as subtle as Naipaul. Instead, he works in a fuzzy area with reminders of nineteenth-century American writers such as Poe and Hawthorne and Melville, who disguised their attacks on American culture and religion in double-minded and duplicitous books. Perhaps Pamuk’s example of a writer working in an indirect subterranean fashion appeals to both Turkish readers and English-speaking critics.

I’ve not forgotten the love story and whodunit – although Pamuk often seems to. He tries to individualize Black and Shekure, but they resist him, partly because of the melodramatic position he puts them in, partly because he has them frequently think of themselves as legendary lovers Husrev and Shirin, seemingly the Romeo and Juliet of Turkey. Pamuk doesn’t really try to personalize the miniaturists, who have no substantial life outside their art. Instead, they are mouthpieces for increasingly academic arguments. The most vital, uniquely voiced chapters are those narrated by a busybody peddler named Esther, Satan, Death, and the color red. As in The Black Book, Istanbul has the force of a character, one that seems more contemporary than Pamuk’s people.

By the time the murderer revealed himself, I didn’t care who he was. Long before, I’d recognized that the mystery was merely a device to lend a modicum of urgency to Pamuk’s esthetic arguments. Because they are so repetitive, I began to wonder if the book’s redundancy was for the popular Turkish audience that Pamuk has said reads little serious fiction. That would make sense. But why would reviewers such as John Updike in The New Yorker and Richard Eder in The New York Times Book Review praise a novel that resembles what Henry James, a century ago, called “fluid puddings”? Both Updike and Eder seemed so surprised that a novelist from Turkey could be obsessed with esoteric esthetic issues that the reviewers overlooked or downplayed often unesthetic execution. That Pamuk, the reviews imply, he is one of us Westerners despite long odds against him. Of course, one wants to recognize courage and achievement in the face of repressive conditions, but not at the expense of artistic criteria. If Orhan Pamuk were from Greece or Italy or Spain, countries with long narrative traditions, American critics might have displayed less tolerance for My Name Is Red.

Tom LeClair’s novel, Passing On, was published last year by greekworks.com, which will release The Liquidators this winter.
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