- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 16, 2001

By Orhan Pamuk
Translated from the Turkish by Erdag M. Goknar
Knopf, $25.95, 417 pages

The Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk's new book is a long read, requiring of the reader no less patience for the culture and particulars of Persian and Ottoman miniaturist painting of the 16th century than "Moby Dick" demands on the subject of whaling. There is no point in being in a hurry over "My Name is Red" — it stands for the color crimson — because this is a tale about the reverse of hurrying up, being set in an age and place where the Ottoman Empire still competed on equal terms with the technologically superior West — but only just, for the end was beginning to be sensed.
Connections between the painting in miniatures and book illustrating that flourished during the reign of Sultan Murat III (1574-1595) and the dramatic plot of the novel, which is a combination murder mystery, love story and meditation on art in history are no less compelling than in the American book, arguably more so. Mr. Pamuk's novel is a marvelous piece of writing, which may have more of Marcel Proust about it than the comparatively rough-hewing Herman Melville.
Picture the scene, a few pages into the long book, in which a man has awakened to the horror of a stranger in the marital bedroom, wielding a dagger in one hand while strangling him with the other:
"Every detail, the finely wrought wall, window and frame ornamentation, the curves and circular designs in the red rug, the color of the silent scream emanating from your clamped throat and the yellow and purple flowers embroidered with incredible finesse and vigor on the magnificent quilt upon which the bare and vile foot of your murderer mercilessly steps as he ends your life, all of these details serve the same purpose: While augmenting the beauty of the painting, they remind you how exquisite are the room in which you will soon die and the world you will soon leave."
The story opens with a murder, that of the master miniaturist Elegant Effendi, one of a number of painters who have been working on the illustrations for a "Book of Festivities," celebrating the circumcision of the sultan's son and prince. In the opening paragraphs, Elegant speaks to the reader from the well into which his corpse was thrown after he was battered to death. It is known, from the start, that the murderer was a colleague and fellow painter.
At issue is the argument over whether the illustrators should remain faithful to the traditionalist Asian techniques — directly related to their religious obedience to Allah — or be free to render their pictures in more realistic fashion per the ways of the Venetians, or Franks as the Ottomans referred to their principal Western rivals at that time. A collateral issue concerns whether pictures may stand alone, that is, be nothing but themselves, versus the requirement of tradition that they illustrate a well known story. The conservative Elegant had rattled at least one colleague working on Enishte's book into fearing that he would report the others to religious reactionaries, who in turn would turn the sultan against them. And so Elegant had to go, at least in the mind of his killer.
The 59 chapters, each in the voice of one of the many characters (which in addition to the people include a dog, a tree, a gold coin, a couple of dervishes portrayed in a painting, crimson "Red" and even Satan himself) suggest a tale from "The Thousand and One Nights." The "character" Red speaks for gushing blood as well as hues in the beautiful pictures constantly making their appearances in the pages. As Enishte reports, "Our eyes, fatigued from reading these tales, rest upon the pictures… . The images are the story's blossoming in color."
The novel's frame romance is that of Khosrow (called Husrev in the novel) and Shirin, told in Persian romantic literature of the early 13th century by Nezami, and by the Ottoman poet Sinan Seyhi in the early 15th. The tale's roots lie in the career of the Persian Khosrow II, died 628 A.D., and his Armenian Christian wife, Shirin. Into this historical frame, a more modern — meaning late 16th-century — love story is inserted.
It is winter in Istanbul, and most of the time it seems to be snowing. The hero, tall and lean and called Black, has been traveling in the East for 12 years, when he is called home by his uncle Enishte, to help in completing the "Book of Festivities" by writing a text to accompany the miniaturists' illustrations. Black is a trained miniaturist himself, but during his absence he occupied a sequence of bureaucratic posts for various eminences. His exile was precipitated by his falling in love with Enishte's daughter, the beautiful Shekure. Then 24 to her 12, Black made the mistake of declaring his love, Shekure told her father and Black was sent away.
During Black's 12-year absence, Shekure married a dashing cavalry office and had two sons by him, Shevket and Orhan, seven and six years old respectively at the beginning of the story. The boys' father has been missing in action for four years and is feared to be dead. Shekure, after suffering the importunity of her brother-in-law Hasan's falling in love with her, has returned with the boys to her father's house. In consequence her father-in-law feels affronted, and Hasan's heart is breaking.
The situation, clearly, is an accident waiting to happen when Black turns up, ready to fall in love all over again after trying valiantly to keep Shekure's face before him during all the years of (far from celibate, it should be allowed) exile. Such is the setting in which the book's triple dramas get underway: one, the effort to finish the sultan's book, two, the search for the murderer of Elegant and, three, Black's and Hassan's competing for the love of Shekure.
That will be enough of the story to give away, so I shall content myself with introducing a few more of the rich array of characters populating the novel's pages. As in life, the higher one goes on the totem pole, the less frequently key players are seen. The sultan makes one appearance, his Head Treasurer and Commander of the Guard hardly more. The Treasurer has the keys to where all the oldest and rarest books are kept, the Commander is in charge of interrogations, applications of the bastinado, stranglings, hangings, impalings and "delicate" flayings. As tension mounts, none of these terrible punishments is far from the miniaturists' thoughts.
Somewhat closer is Master Osman, head of all the miniaturists and keeper of the workshop in which they once were apprentices under the dual tutelage of his beatings and caresses. For the purpose of the murder mystery, three among them loom large, those whom Osman nicknamed in their youth "Olive," "Butterfly" and "Stork." Conveying the distinctions among their artistic skills and personalities is one of the book's painstaking achievements.
Among other supporting cast, the ambiguously appealing brother-in-law, Hasan, is persuasively drawn, as is Esther, the Jewish clothes peddler obliged under law to wear pink and much in demand as letter carrier and matchmaker. Enishte, Shekure's father, is realistic in his concern for his daughter and his combination of affection for, and skepticism toward, his nephew Black. Hayrire, Shekure's slave and maid of all work makes the best of her chances, such as they are, in the developing family drama. The little boys, Shevket and Orhan, could be from our own families here and now.
Black and Shekure, the principals, are drawn with skill and delicacy, Shekure perhaps making the more persuasive portrait of the two. She is a woman caught on the horns of both dilemma and her own ambivalence; she wonders whether she has fallen in love with Black's "incompetence," and whether she may be choosing the wrong man. And passionately inclined as she may be, her first thought has to be the protection her sons, who need a father.
I reviewed Mr. Pamuk's novel, "The White Castle," years ago and admired it very much. His next, "The Black Book," also was praised by our reviewer. This new one, handsomely translated from the Turkish by Erdag M. Goknar with only the very occasional postmodern phrase creeping in, deserves a wide readership in the West. Otherwise, it will be shameful waste of a fine writer whose elegiac words in his closing pages, "Thus withered the crimson rose of the joy of painting and illumination that bloomed for a century in Istanbul, nurtured by inspiration from the lands of Persia," speak to his novel's eloquence and power.

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