Lately I’ve been submerging myself in some excellent books, and I’ve also been enjoying reviewing them in the loose format that Thursday Thirteen allows. “My Name is Red” by Nobel prize laureate Orhan Pamuk is a dense tale recounted by many complex and surprising characters, all of which are connected in some way. Among them lurks a murderer who must be found before he strikes again. But of course there’s much more to it than that. Here are 13 things I thought I’d share with you (and which won’t spoil your experience should you decide to read it):
1. The novel takes place in Istanbul during the late XVIth century. During this period the Ottoman empire and the strict followers of Islam were doggedly following traditions while many coveted the modernity they witnessed in Europe, where the Renaissance masters were creating lifelike paintings the likes of which had never been seen before.
2. There are two intrigues in the book, the first and most obvious being: figuring out who killed a character called Elegant Effendi, a miniaturist. As for the second intrigue… I’m still trying to figure out who “Red” is supposed to be.
3. Miniaturists are artisans who’s work consists in illuminating manuscripts. They made very tiny paintings since they only had the borders of the pages available to them as they had to work around calligraphy. As is explained in the book, miniaturists were praised for their skill and technique but were greatly discouraged from developing a style or trying something new. In fact, they were expected to make exact reproductions of the various elements from older works. For example, it was considered that there was only one way to draw a tree, or a cloud, so that if there were several horses on the same illumination, they were all expected to be rendered in the exact same way.
4. The murdered miniaturist had been working on a special and secret project with three other miniaturists, who all fall under suspicion for the murder of Elegant Effendi, since it is clear that he’s been murdered for a reason connected to their project. The other miniaturists are called Olive, Stork and Butterfly and why they are called that way is explained in the book.
5. The novel’s construction is such that the narrative switches from one character to another in each chapter. Among the non-human characters who get to tell us their part of the story there is a corpse, a gold coin, death, a horse from a manuscript, a dog, and the colour red. I found it very interesting to hear about the motivations of all the characters from their own point of view — even the murderer speaks to us — however, he takes care not to reveal his identity.
6. At the heart of the novel is a book commissioned by the Sultan. He calls on Enishte Effendi to produce this task, rather than Master Osman, who is chief of the workshop. This exacerbates a bitter rivalry between the two masters since Enishte uses the miniaturists from the workshop to work on this project. To add insult to injury, Enishte Effendi has decided to illustrate this manuscript in a Renaissance style. Although the Sultan is in favour of the project, it is considered an affront to Islam by conservative individuals and religious leaders alike.
7. So in essence, people are willing to literally kill each other over a question of drawing style. I wonder if that would happen nowadays.
8. There are no animals in this story, unless you count the illustrations of horses that are referred to quite often, and eventually become the object of much scrutiny, as it is believed that the particular horse they are looking for will be the key to finding the murderer. I love horses, I really do, but that was a lot of talk about illustrations of horses and I found that section of the story a tad longish.
9. Black, one of the principal characters, harboured a love for a woman called Shekure for twelve years before getting a chance to see her again, which happens at the beginning of the novel. They exchange notes, (thanks to the help of a colourful cloth merchant called Esther). Their quickly developing love affair is mostly a complicated and frustrating one. Shekure is apparently very beautiful, which is just great, but in my opinion is a sad excuse for putting up with her crap. That’s all I’m sayin’.
10. Pamuk really really really enjoys composing loooooong lists of things. Usually exquisite and/or quite exotic things. Fortunately it doesn’t happen too often. It just seems to. That being said, I loved the book.
11. Apparently it was quite common for miniaturists to go blind when they were old because of all the effort on their eyes their work demanded over the years. This form of blindness was so common in fact, that some masters actually blinded themselves deliberately so that they too could be revered as truly great masters.
12. The story of Hüsrev and Shirin, which is of Persian origin, comes up often in the story since it’s a story that Black and Shekure enjoyed as children, and also because it was a very popular subject seen in many manuscripts. It seems illuminations during this time were usually based on the Persian style.
13. As I understand it, there was a lot of boy love going on during the Ottoman Empire. Pamuk makes mention of it quite often as something that seemed to be acceptable in those times (or perhaps it was mostly among miniaturists?). Also perceived as normal was an astounding amount and of violence and cruelty. Not that there is any relation between the two.
Arifi, Guy-u Chawgan. From Sarai Albums. Istanbul, 1539.
Sultan Murad II at Archery Practice (bottom)
Huner-nama (‘Book of Skills’). Istanbul, 1584. Hazine 1523
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