My Name is Red

I picked up a copy of My Name is Red for two reasons. The first was that my brother had recommended it to me a while back when he was reading it. The second is that Orhan Pamuk is Turkish and I have been missing a friend of mine with whom I haven’t spoken in a while. She is also Turkish.

I’m really of two minds about this book. On the one hand, as a medievalist I am naturally attracted to a book that focuses on manuscript creation in the sixteenth century (ok, so the 16th is a little late for a medievalist, but the thought is still there) and I love historical novels. For those reasons I did really enjoy the book. However, some things about it really put me off. I found it very difficult to convince myself to finish it, and this from a woman who has never put down a book without reading through to the last page.

I think t hat part of the problem may have been an issue of language. The book was written in Turkish and although that is not a language I can read, I am aware of the difficulties inherent in translations. I would love to speak to someone (a-hem, Ekim, I mean you!!!) who may have read this book in its original language. I can’t help but wonder if what I considered dragging prose was more an issue of the language incompatibility.

The other issue I had with the book was that I found it highly repetitive at times. While I understand that the Muslim concern with portraying human forms in art as possibly idolatrous was an imperative element to the plot, I felt that throughout the book every chapter hounded the point to the ground. It is a fine line, to be sure, since the book is, in its most simplistic form, an investigation of a murder surrounding the creation of an illustrated manuscript. Again, perhaps this sense of redundancy was an issue of language more than authorship.

The book was rich with what reminded me of a discussion of Aristotelian potential and form. On multiple occasions the miniaturists in the novel discuss the importance of never painting an object as it appears in the world, but only in its ideal form. More than once this discussion evolved into a debate about how it would be possible for a man to interpret the world around him as Allah would see it. How can a man only paint the ideal if he has never seen it? The tension between the ideals of western or Frankish art and the art of the Ottoman miniaturists strains every character in the book, whether he believes in originality and style or not.

Although the miniaturists and illustrators in the novel are concerned with style and the possible negative effects it has on the purity of art, it is Pamuk himself who flaunts his own distinctive style. Each chapter is told through the eyes of a different character, most human but there is also a chapter narrated by a dog, a horse, a tree and a coin. The opening chapter is spoken in the voice of the first murder victim and not more than a handful of chapters later his murderer speaks out. Yes, this is a murder mystery, but it is certainly a-typical.

I’m not sure that I would just at the chance to read any other work by Orhan Pamuk, but on the whole I’m glad I did make it through. It was an interesting look into the culture and values of 16th century Istanbul as well as an in depth analysis of the creation of Islamic art, two topics about which I knew next to nothing.

Calling all book lovers: For once I do not have another book lined up and waiting in the wings. I’m looking for suggestions. If you’ve got a book you loved and one that you feel compelled to recommend, please do. One limitation. I’m really not into the romance driven story line.

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~ by CableGirl on Thursday, August 16, 2007.

4 Responses to “My Name is Red”

  1. One novel I really loved was Stone from the River by Ursula Hegi. It’s a novel about a dwarf girl, set in small-town Germany before and during the second world war. Very good for showing that in a war, not everything can be boiled down to a victim-perpetrator dichotomy…

  2. PS: right now I’m reading The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman…

  3. Alexandra, I’ve read the Pullman books and loved them. Stone from the River sounds like an interesting read. Thanks for the suggestion.

  4. Oh man! You took the words right out of my mouth. Okay, that’s not true, you spoke much more articulately than I could have on this particular book. It’s the only book I can think of in recent years that I’ve really struggled to finish. I was drawn to the story line and to the cover (because yes, I’m a girl who judges books on their cover), but I’m struggling with it. Maybe I will finish it based on this review.

    As for new book suggestions, I’ve read “Stone from the River” too, and quite liked it. Anything by Melissa Banks or Dave Eggers are good reads to me. Oh, and if you haven’t read “A Confederacy of Dunces” you must. It’s unlike anyting I’ve ever read before.

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