"My Name is Red"
by Orhan Pamuk
Reading history and reviews
Finished on 9th January 2011In late 16th century Istanbul, the Sultan has commissioned two illuminated manuscripts: one has traditional illustrations, prepared openly in the traditional style in sultan's workshop under the guidance of head illustrator Master Osman, while the other - which controversially combines traditional depictions with the new "Frankish styles" from Europe - is the secret work of four master miniaturist painters (Elegant, Stork, Olive and Butterfly) coordinated by Enishte Effendi. However, this project is threatened when Elegant is murdered, exposing the deep divisions between the illustrators and their masters, also pulling in Enishte's daughter Shekure and her would-be husband Black (recently returned to Istanbul to assist Enishte).
The story is told from the alternating viewpoints of the characters - including some who are dead (such as the murdered Elegant), and some who are fictional even within the context of the book (for example a dog, a gold coin, a horse) - and combines elements of whodunnit (who is the murderer?) and soap operatic romance (between Shekure and Black) alongside extended meditations on the Islamic art of the period. While initially appearing to be tangential to the plot, these sections - wherein various characters ponder the nature of art and its relationship to religion - are actually central. The question of whether incorporating elements of Western art could be considered immoral or blasphemous provides the motivation for Elegant's murder, while the question of whether a painter should have an individual "style" is ultimately the key to unmasking the murderer.
The large number of character viewpoints and the juxtaposition of the (often vaguely comic) plots with the more serious chapters about art and religion meant that in places "My Name is Red" could be a little frustrating and slow, although it definitely gains momentum in the final third. At the same time its descriptions of the masterpieces produced by the minituarists (and comparisions with western traditional art) did make me consider how painting can implicitly embody deep cultural and religious values that might otherwise go unnoticed. So while not without some flaws, overall I found it an entertaining and thought-provoking read.