Saturday, November 19, 2005

My Name Is Red

By Orhan Pamuk
Anyone who's visited Turkey has probably been drawn to the charm of Turkish miniature paintings. These delicate, stylized images of battles and bathhouses, with their fine lines and flat colors, are exquisite examples of Eastern artistry. Looking at them is like peering into an exotic and radiant dollhouse.
In Orhan Pamuk's "My Name Is Red," a 16th century Turkish illuminated manuscript is at the center of a historical murder mystery. Pamuk, a best- selling author in Turkey, uses the history of his country's art to examine intersections between religion, creativity and human desire. The result is a huge and ambitious novel that is by turns charming and pedantic. Like Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose," "My Name Is Red" combines down-and-dirty intrigue with scholarship and a postmodern sensibility. Written from multiple perspectives, it includes chapters narrated by recently murdered people, a dog, a tree and even the color red.
"I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well," begins the compelling first chapter. The body belongs to Elegant Effendi, one of four master artists who has been commissioned, at the end of the 16th century, to illustrate a secret and controversial manuscript for Ottoman Sultan Murat III. Unlike other Turkish illustrations, this one will incorporate the newest techniques from "Frankish," or Venetian painting, using perspective, shadows and -- most daring of all -- recognizable portraits of individuals.
All of this allows Pamuk to explore the aesthetics of representation in great and sometimes exhausting detail. We learn about the significance of gilded borders, prescribed ways for drawing eyes and nostrils and the tension between innovation and imitation. "If the picture is to be perfect," says one illustrator, "it ought to have been drawn at least a thousand times before I attempt it." Others in the novel refuse to embrace such dictates. Enishte ("Uncle"), who is coordinating the secret manuscript, thinks that Western portraiture is the way of the future, though he acknowledges the danger of an art that glorifies individual humans.
Like Calvino, Borges, Kafka and Eco (to all of whom he's been previously compared) Pamuk is a writer who is able to combine avant-garde literary techniques with stories that capture the popular imagination. Here, the ingredients are potent, but the balance is off. Like an overenthusiastic master illustrator, Pamuk paints a vivid picture, but loads it with so many details and symbols that the eye has nowhere calm to rest. Sarah Coleman is a New York writer and reviewer. San Francisco Chronicle Sunday, December 9, 2001

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