A surprise gift from my bookish little buddy last Christmas, My Name Is Red took me by surprise as much as it did when it landed on my hands. I had no idea then what it’s about (of course; you should know by now that I immediately buy and wish for books that have the Nobel badge on them), so it was a real thrill to read a beautifully rendered mesh of history, art, philosophy, romance, suspense, and mystery. Jam-packed, right?
To push it a little to the edge, each chapter is written in the perspective of the character or object dedicated to it. The first chapter, “I Am a Corpse”, is the voice of the recently disembodied spirit of a miniaturist talking about his manner of death. He slyly withholds the identity of his murderer, which will provide the reader with much guessing as the suspects Butterfly, Olive, and Stork speak their parts.
And who is in charge of solving this murder mystery? He is called Black, which at first I found funny because of the novel’s title. But yes, I hear you: who is Red?
I hear the question upon your lips: What is it to be a color?
Color is the touch of the eye, music to the deaf, a word out of the darkness. Because I’ve listened to souls whispering–like the susurrus of the wind–from book to book and object to object for tens of thousands of years, allow me to say that my touch resembles the touch of angels. Part of me, the serious half, calls out to your vision while the mirthful half soars through the air with your glances.
I’m so fortunate to be red! I’m fiery. I’m strong. I know men take notice of me and that I cannot be resisted.
Red is that: a color. Other nonhuman narrators that speak here are dogs, trees, gold coins, and horses. Death and Satan are also given their own parts, so it’s not too hard to believe for the color red to speak. Besides, the novel is largely about art; artistic theories and techniques are discussed here and there, so why not let Red talk?
Elegant (the murdered), Butterfly, Olive, and Stork are a group of 16th century artists who are commissioned by the sultan to secretly work on Westernized paintings that are deemed blasphemous by the Islams. The time that they live in is that period when art was used merely to support any text that it accompanies. If the text says that two lovers meet by the lake, no dogs or any inconsequential details should be drawn. Art cannot be done for itself alone because it is seen by the fundamentalist as a glorification of objects, therefore a spit in the face of the Creator, therefore a form of blasphemy.
The murder of Elegant is a metaphor for the murdering of the old traditions to usher in the new Western customs that started to dominate Europe. The Turkish setting is perfect for this because it is at the point where East meets West, so the clash of two cultures is more obvious and imminent than somewhere else.
From the novel’s trunk branches ideas upon ideas that can fascinate the not too artsy person like me. The question of imprinting a signature, the persistence of paintings over time, the mastery that leads to blindness, and other topics that deal with art, life, death, love, and religion are presented in every chapter, and these can be either integrated in the novel as plot-builders or philosophical lectures.
Sometimes the reader might feel that he’s already reading nonfiction, but the shift is too subtle to be detected. The philosophical musings is one of the novel’s strengths, so one doesn’t really mind. Coupled with the murder mystery, the novel is made more riveting.
We are also given a treat with early Persian literature, and an offshoot would be the tragedy of Husrev and Shirin. I bet that every reader of this novel would be forced to run a Google search of their paintings to satisfy the curiosity roused from reading. The literary Husrev and Shirin parallels, albeit not directly, our main characters Black and his wife, Shekure.
So yes, as I’ve mentioned earlier, there’s a treat for any type of reader out there. And the truth is, I find it hard to come up with something solid and coherent about this. It’s a real blow in the head. You start this novel without a lot of expectations and then you find yourself with a blow in the head, spinning out of control and little dazed, perhaps.
I will no longer detain you with this crazy attempt to capture what I feel for the book. I have so many formless thoughts on it, and before I end up with an extended mashing of praises for the novel’s brilliant handling of a wide array of subjects, I’d like to announce that this wouldn’t be my last Pamuk read.