I have heard of Pamuk’s work couple of years ago when my mom got his book as a present. I distinctly remember ‘My Name is Red’ as a book that she read for a while and struggled a bit but one that she ultimately enjoyed. After finally finishing it, I can say I completely agree with her. The style of the novel is beautiful, and I am very interested in the philosophy behind art creation, so I did enjoy those aspects. On the other hand, at times, it became very hard to keep focused on Pamuk’s extensive lists and inclusion of numerous fables that are loosely related to the topic. Overall, though, I am glad I read this book as it offers insight into the culture and way of thinking that was quite foreign to me.
The blurb at the back of the copy I had presented this as a thriller set in the late 1590s Istanbul. The plot is seemingly quite simple: Sultan secretly commissioned a book that would serve as a celebration of his life. However, while the murder of one of the miniaturists is an important part of the novel and propels the events, I would characterize this novel more of a philosophical novel about nature of art and relationship of art and the artists. Theme of religion and its influence on 16th century Istanbul artists is also prevalent as some of the main conflicts between the characters happen because of how they perceive Islam and its messages. Some of these discussions can get convoluted to the point I had to read some passages several times to get the basic idea. Still, I enjoyed getting a glimpse into the life and rationale that is completely different than mine, one guided by strong conviction and tradition. Although until the end of the novel, I did not feel like I fully understood all the ideas, I did appreciate the rationales behind it and I genuinely felt I learned a lot by reading it.
To be completely honest, this novel took me much longer to finish then I anticipated as I am usually a fast reader. Whether because of the topic at hand or the writing style, I really struggled with getting to the end of this one. I can appreciate the beauty of Pamuk’s writing and the meticulous details when describing the beautiful miniatures (I looked them up online, they truly are breathtaking) but constant reiterations of the descriptions also made it so hard to read. I cannot help but wonder whether some of the poetics of Turkish language got lost in the translation. Did you read this book in original language? What were your thoughts on it? Did the translation do it justice?
When it comes to characters, I really appreciated the polyphony of the voices often times describing the same events from different perspectives. It was also quite ingenious to give voice to different objects present on the pictures so there are chapters where the narrator is a drawn horse, dog, tree, coin and even the actual color red. I think that characters are really well-developed, their motivations and their convictions clearly laid out for the readers. Although the book was originally published in 1998, I really felt like the characters felt authentic to the temporal and spatial circumstances they were in. What I did not particularly like is the dialogues between the characters as it often felt quite unnatural for the situation in which they are in. Often, instead of answering the direct questions, characters will go into retelling various fables from Turkish history. While they were interesting to read, they were quite distracting and I did not always see their connection with the rest of the plot. While I think that the most characters are distinct with the clear voices, the three minituarists Olive, Butterfly and Stork, possible suspects of the murder did not. This could be in a way to keep the air of mystery about the murder, but it would get really confusing and the three of them for me became muddled. What did you think about this? Did you like the characters?
Pamuk also includes a lot of historical facts and the circumstances in his novel and again introduces them through stories exchanged between characters. As I have as much knowledge as the average person on this topic, at times it was challenging keeping up with all the names, titles and events. Thankfully, at the end of my copy, there is a chronological list of historical events that I frequently consulted. This has also led to going down the rabbit hole of google research started by the attempt to understand the context of some stories from the novel. I am a big fan of history and historical fiction, so I found this research quite enjoyable. If you do too, I think you will enjoy this aspect of the novel and with a bit of googling and consulting the chronology, I am sure you will be able to keep up as well.
Finally, I am glad I got through with the novel. Although it was one of the most challenging in terms of understanding its ideas and philosophy, I did find it quite informative and beautiful. There is a lot of information about Turkish culture and history that I simply did not know about. To be honest, I never took a particular interest in it, so I am glad that I got the chance to learn more and hopefully understand this ancient culture a bit more. If you plan to read ‘My Name is Red’, arm yourself with a lot of patience and prepare to spend a lot of time on it. I truly understand why Pamuk won the Novel Prize in Literature, as this novel does open a lot of really interesting discussions and offers another perspective to it. As this is the first novel by Pamuk I have read, I would be interested to read more. If you have read them, feel free to leave the recommendations in the comments. Did you read ‘My Name is Red’? What were your thoughts on it?