Istanbul, 1591: Black, a painter of miniatures, returns to his native Istanbul from his travels into Persia and the far reaches of the sultan’s empire. For 12 years he has tried to escape the vision of his beautiful cousin, Shekure, whose hand was denied him by his master and uncle, Enishte Effendi. Riding into town, Black discovers that Shekure has been recently widowed and one of Enishte’s illustrators has been murdered.
Love and crime in an exotic city have always proved a compelling combination to Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, whether in his 1990 contemporary novel “The White Castle” or his historical “The Black Book.” Yet it is neither passion nor homicide that makes Pamuk’s latest, “My Name Is Red,” the rich and essential book that it is. While Pamuk’s descriptions of the ravishing and ravenous Shekure quicken the heart, and his circuitous clues to the identity of the murderer quicken the mind, Pamuk is neither Jacqueline Susann nor Umberto Eco. It is Pamuk’s rendering of the intense life of artists negotiating the devilishly sharp edge of Islam 1,000 years after its birth that elevates “My Name Is Red” to the rank of modern classic.
Pamuk’s artists are a select group of miniaturists in the employ of the sultan. These are men who have passed a lifetime listening to stories in coffeehouses and studying the work of the great Islamic masters, whose illustrations embellish the mythology of Persia. These artisans have spent years engaged in the paradoxical art of illuminating old stories with new pictures in such a way that the illustrations will be beautiful and yet, in following the aesthetics and methods of the old masters, bear no trace of individuality, or “style.”
They have operated according to strict guidelines set by imams who interpret the Koran as tolerating visual art only as an extension of writing, a decorative addition to the already decorative calligraphy. And as an extension of writing, everything from the color to the size of objects was determined not by proximity to the viewer or interpretation but by relative importance in the scene and the hierarchy of the world.
Now these miniaturists, known by their noms de plume as Butterfly, Stork, Olive and Elegant, have been recruited by Black’s uncle, Enishte, to work on a project so secret that its true nature is kept even from the chief illustrator, Master Osman. Enishte has been commanded by the sultan to complete a special illustrated book. “Our Sultan, Refuge of the World, wanted to demonstrate that in the thousandth year of the Muslim calendar He and His state could utilize the styles of the Franks as well as the Franks themselves.” Enishte has been asked to conquer the West by imitating its culture. And yet, in the eyes of the fundamentalist followers of Nusrat Hoja, doing so will be blasphemy against Allah, against the East. Enishte has been commanded to perform the impossible.
For in a culture in which personality is frowned upon and respect for the past is sacred, style is a dirty word. Style is for the Franks, for the Western painters that Enishte encountered on a youthful visit to Venice as an emissary for the sultan many years before. In the West, verisimilitude is all the rage and forced perspective the way to capture the three-dimensional world on the two-dimensional canvas.
In the East, such art is sacrilegious icon-making. “On the Day of Judgment, the idol-makers will be asked to bring the images they created to life,” the Murderer of the novel tells Enishte Effendi. “Since they will be unable to bring anything to life, their lot will be to suffer the torments of Hell. Let it not be forgotten that in the Glorious Koran, ‘creator’ is one of the attributes of God. It is Allah who is creative, who brings that which is not into existence, who gives life to the lifeless. No one ought to compete with Him. The greatest of sins is committed by painters who presume to do as He does, who claim to be as creative as He.’
And so we have a religious pretext for the two murders that fuel the novel and for the love of Black and Shekure which first ran aground when Black dared to replace the faces of two famous mythological lovers, Hsrev and Shirin, with those of his beloved and himself. But none of this commentary would hold any power if not for the particular place of honor that books and art hold in the empire.
It is a world riven by wars of succession in which each new victor pulled “apart the books that had come into his possession; a new dedication would be written, boasting of the conqueror as the new ‘ruler of the world,’ a new colophon added, and it would all be re-bound so that those who laid eyes on the conqueror’s book would believe that he truly was a world ruler.”
To read Pamuk is to be converted to the cult of the book. He paints the lives and the histories of his miniaturists with exquisite detail and, yes, style (and is beautifully served by his publisher’s chief “miniaturist,” the book designer Chip Kidd, whose art has heightened the value of hundreds of books over the last decade).
Pamuk gives voice to all his characters, from the sensuous Shekure to the corpse of the illustrator. Esther, the pink-clad yenta of Istanbul; the luxurious Master Osman with his fatal love for the illuminations of the old masters; the corpse of the dead illustrator; a drawing of a horse and the color crimson--each have chaptersful of monologues to paint their particular section of the Pamuk story. Even a gold coin puts in its two cents on the issue of verisimilitude. “All right then, I confess. I’m not a genuine twenty-two carat Ottoman Sultani gold coin minted at the Chemberlitash Mint. I’m counterfeit. They made me in Venice using adulterated gold and brought me here, passing me off as twenty-two carat Ottoman gold. Your sympathy and understanding are much appreciated.”
Sometimes pushing forward with gossip, sometimes stretching imaginatively with glorious excursions into myth and history, these voices build a city of words. But most miraculously, Pamuk’s Istanbul is a city trembling over a fault line of ideas. To read Pamuk is to be steeped in a paradox that precedes our modern-day feuds between secularism and fundamentalism.
The urge to be as creative as Allah is unstoppable. It comes from God’s asking the angels to bow down before man, says Satan, the only refusenik among the seraphim, in a story recounted in the miniaturists’ coffeehouse. No wonder everyone wants his portrait painted, wants himself placed at the center of the world. “I know it as well as I know my own name,” Satan complains to God, “that this narcissism can only culminate in their forgetting you entirely.” “As this plague spreads,” says the Murderer later on, “none of us will be able to stand against the methods of the Europeans.” Sound familiar?
“My Name Is Red,” like the best historical novels, is a super-parable, a novel of our time. As the Taliban destroys statues of Buddha thousands of years old and Bible thumpers burn art books and ban John Lennon, we realize that still for some, it is not McDonald’s but Michelangelo who is the great Satan.
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