Murder in Miniature - Orhan Pamuk: My Name Is Red

Orhan Pamuk is a fifty-year-old Turk frequently hailed as his country's foremost novelist. He is both avant-garde and best-selling. His eminence, like that of the Albanian Ismail Kadare, looms singularly; Western culture-consumers, it may be, don't expect Turkey and Albania to produce novelists at all—at least, novelists so wise in the ways of modernism and postmodernism. Pamuk, the grandson of a wealthy factory director and railroad builder, has been privileged to write without needing to make a living by it. From a family of engineers, he studied engineering, architecture, and journalism, and practiced none of them. Until the age of thirty, he lived with his parents, writing novels that did not get published. When literary success dawned, he married, and now, living in Istanbul with his wife and daughter, he composes, according to an interview he gave Publishers Weekly in 1994, from eleven at night till four in the morning and again, after arising at noon, from two in the afternoon till eight. The results have been prodigious: six novels that recapitulate in Turkish the twentieth-century novel's major modes. His first, “Cevdet Bey and His Sons,” was likened to Thomas Mann's “Buddenbrooks”; his next, “The Silent House,” a multiply narrated week of family interaction, suggested to critics Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner; his third, “The White Castle,” a creepy seventeenth-century tale of double identity, evoked comparison to Borges and Calvino; the fourth, “The Black Book,” a missing-persons adventure saturated in details of Istanbul, was written, by Pamuk's own admission, with Joyce's “Ulysses” in mind; the fifth, “The New Life,” a dreamlike first-person contemporary tale, was described by a reviewer as “Kafka with a light touch”; and the sixth, “My Name Is Red” (translated from the Turkish by Erdag Göknar; Knopf; $25.95), a murder mystery set in sixteenth-century Istanbul, uses the art of miniature illumination, much as Mann's “Doctor Faustus” did music, to explore a nation's soul.

 “My Name Is Red” weighs in, with its appended chronology, at more than four hundred big pages and belongs, in its high color and scholarly density, with other recent novels that load extensive book learning onto a detective-story plot: A. S. Byatt's “Possession” and Umberto Eco's “The Name of the Rose” and “Foucault's Pendulum.” One worries, with such ambitious flights, whether they aren't a bit narrow-shouldered for the task—whether the rather ironically melodramatic story can carry its burden of pedantry and large import. Nineteenth-century novelists catered to a more generous, less nibbled attention span; they breathed with bigger lungs and naturally wrote long, deep, and wide. Although Pamuk demonstrates the patience and constructive ability of the nineteenth-century fabricators and their heirs Proust and Mann, his instinctive affinity lies with the relatively short-winded Calvino and Borges, philosophical artificers of boxes within boxes. Pamuk's boxes are bigger, but the toylike feeling persists, of craftsmanship exulting in its powers, of giant gadgets like those with which the Europeans used to woo Turkey's sultan with evidence of Western technology.

Pamuk's ingenuity is yoked to a profound sense of enigma and doubleness. The doubleness, he has said, derives from that of Turkey itself, a nation straddling Asia and Europe and divided between the progressive “Kemalist” heritage of Kemal Ataturk's radical reforms of 1924—secularism in government, public education for all, voting rights for women, the replacement of the Arabic alphabet with the Roman one—and conservative Islam, now resurgent as a repressive, potentially violent fundamentalism from Morocco to Malaysia.

The ostensible topic of “My Name Is Red” is the threatened Westernization of Ottoman pictorial art, an offshoot, protected by Sultan Murat III (r. 1574-95), of the Persian tradition of miniature painting. To honor the thousandth anniversary (measured in lunar years) of the Hegira, which occurred in 622 A.D., an illustrated book is being prepared for the Sultan in the “Frankish,” or “Venetian,” style of receding perspective and recognizable individual portraiture. In the first chapter of “My Name Is Red,” a miniaturist named Elegant, a specialist in gilding, objects so strenuously to the blasphemy of this stylistic change that another miniaturist, unidentified, kills him and drops his body down a well. Later, the same assailant kills Enishte (“Uncle”), the organizer of this dangerous book. One of three miniaturists involved—who are named, in picturesque Ottoman style, Butterfly, Olive, and Stork—must be the murderer. The detective, for want of another, is Enishte's nephew, Black, who has returned to Istanbul “like a sleepwalker” after twelve years spent in Persia, “carrying letters and collecting taxes” and “working as a secretary in the service of pashas.” In his youth, he studied with the miniaturist apprentices but did not last the course; he exiled himself after Enishte rejected his suit for the hand of Enishte's daughter, Shekure. Now Black has been summoned back by his uncle to help him organize the book for the Sultan. When Enishte is slain, Shekure, whose first husband disappeared in battle four years earlier, hastily weds Black but will not let the marriage be consummated until he brings the murderer to justice.

This curious, sumptuous, protracted thriller consists of fifty-nine chapters told from a total of twelve viewpoints, including that of the murderer. The two slain characters address us from the afterlife, and we are even treated, at the end of the longest chapter, to the viewpoint of a severed head, whose eyes and brain continue, in morose fashion, to function for an interim. The reader participates, wincingly, in two blindings by means of the very needle (a “turquoise-and-mother-of-pearl-handled golden needle used to fasten plumes to turbans”) with which the supreme master of Persian miniatures, Bihzad of Herat (c. 1460-1535), blinded himself, by one interpretation, “to make the statement that whosoever beheld the pages of this book”—the Mongol “Book of Kings”—”even once would no longer wish to see anything else in this world” or else, by another theory, to avoid being forced to paint in an uncongenial way for the new conqueror of Herat.

Black, as he rushes about Istanbul trying to win Shekure's heart with feats of detection, relates the most chapters, twelve. Shekure relates eight chapters, and these speed by with the most ease and psychological interest; in her voice the novel becomes a romantic one, driven by emotion and intimate concerns. Preoccupied with her own feelings, her own survival, and the protection of her two young sons, she rarely lectures us on the nuances, stylistic and religious, of Persian-style miniatures. When other characters do, “My Name Is Red” acquires the brilliant stasis of the depictions themselves, and seems to go nearly nowhere. Esther, a Jewish clothes peddler and matchmaker who furthers Shekure's amorous affairs, is another welcome female voice in this stiflingly male world. At the men-only coffeehouse behind the slave market, an unnamed storyteller—a “curtain-caller,” in Persian terminology—performs nine impertinent, irreverent monologues based on rough drawings supplied by the miniaturists. After taking on the personae of a dog, a tree, a coin, Death, the color crimson, a horse, Satan, and two dervishes, he surpasses himself with a discourse on the topic of Woman. He realizes that in his society the topic is pretty well covered up:

In the cities of the European Franks, women roam about exposing not only their faces but also their brightly shining hair (after their necks, their most attractive feature), their arms, their beautiful throats, and even, if what I've heard is true, a portion of their gorgeous legs; as a result, the men of those cities walk about with difficulty, embarrassed and in extreme pain, because, you see, their front sides are always erect and this fact naturally leads to the paralysis of their society as a whole. Undoubtedly, this is why each day the Frank infidel surrenders another fortress to us Ottomans.

Though celibate, the storyteller as a youth succumbed, he confesses, to his curiosity about this exotic gender and tried on the clothes of his mother and his aunt; instantly he was invaded by tinglings of feminine sensitivity, along with “an irrepressible affection toward all children” and a desire “to nurse everybody and cook for the whole world.” When he stuffed his aunt's pistachio-green silk shirt with socks and cloths to simulate breasts, he enjoyed a rich range of contradictory feelings:

I understood at once that men, merely catching sight of the shadow of my overabundant breasts, would chase after them and strive to take them into their mouths; I felt quite powerful, but is that what I wanted? I was befuddled: I wanted both to be powerful and to be the object of pity; I wanted a rich, powerful and intelligent man, whom I didn't know from Adam, to fall madly in love with me; yet I also feared such a man.

These androgynous intuitions lead the storyteller to sing of the doubleness that haunts the novel: “My other parts insist I be a woman when I'm a man and a man when I'm a woman. / How difficult it is to be human, even worse is living a human's life. / I only want to amuse myself frontside and backside, to be Eastern and Western both.”

Shortly after this recitation, the storyteller is killed by a mob of the followers of the cleric Nusret of Erzurum, who preaches that the woes besetting Istanbul—fires, plagues, war casualties, counterfeit coins, decadent drugged behavior of dervishes and others—should be laid “to our having strayed from the path of the Prophet, to disregard for the strictures of the Glorious Koran.” Pamuk (who, in his interview with Publishers Weekly, pointed out that he was the first person in Turkey to defend Salman Rushdie and claimed that in his childhood “religion was something that belonged to the poor and the servants”) makes us tremble for the fate of storytellers in a culture where, to quote him again, “the fundamentalist movement [is] the revenge of the poor against the educated, westernized Turks.” The Times last June gave a grim report on the condition of books and fiction in Muslim lands. “In recent years in Egypt,” the Times said, “mere questioning about a novel's content by any religious faction is usually sufficient grounds to get it banned.” One wonders how religious factions in Turkey reacted to the Islamic content of “My Name Is Red,” which treats of the Islamic afterlife in deadpan detail, including “a portrayal of Our Exalted Prophet's bewilderment and ticklishness, as angels seized him by his underarms during his ascension to Heaven from the top of a minaret,” and which investigates with what might seem blasphemous closeness the sacrilege lurking in pictorial representation.

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