Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red (2001), 413 p.
This year Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and although I am reluctant to be led by the opinions of the Nobel Committee because of its highly politicized opinions, I made an exception this time. So I overcame my hesitation, because of the relevance of Pamuk’s inner debate that he expresses in his works, the place of Turkey in many intellectual debates in Europe, the growing influence of Turkish culture within Europe and my ignorance of it as a European, and because this summer I travelled through Turkey, visiting Istanbul and the Turkish west coast.
Right from the first pages of Pamuk’s work you are convinced that reading My Name is Red will be worth while. The serenity of style reveals the mastership of writing that lacks the rush of less talented authors who seek to compensate by immediately exposing to the reader their magic hustling of their vocabulary, like in David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews for instance. Instead, Pamuk’s style indulges me from the beginning in the same endearing sympathy that the works of Dostoewsky generate and impose on the reader, and similarly Pamuk too takes the time he needs to build up and deepen the characters that play out his plot.
The central pattern in My Name is Red is woven by several threads that are based on historic references. The poem Khosru and Shireen (=sweet) by the praised Persian poet Nizami mirrors the love story between Black and Shekura (=sugar). The Book of the Soul makes up the layer of reflection on life after death according to the Qur’an, and the quote from the Qu’ran about the difference between the seeing and the blind captures the discussion in and traditional suspicion of Islam about the place of visual arts. And Pamuk certainly doesn’t stop here in building layer upon layer within his story.
It is not meant to guess Pamuk’s own opinion within the debate about the relation between Islam and art, and he evades his point of perspective by having all characters in My Name is Red speak for themselves, and the author’s voice is absent even more so if the original story teller of My Name is Red in the last line of the book is revealed to be the child that is most dependent on the mother, still suckling the mother’s breast and still under the protection of the mother. Pamuk’s confession of ignorance on all matters told in the story by identifying himself with the todler Orhan however is not an act of cowardice. That Pamuk by choice or against his will possesses great courage is proven by the fact that he has encountered continuous threats against him due to his work in Turkey. The Turkish authorities have attempted to prosecute him numerous times under the infamous article 301, forbidding ‘denigrating Turkishness’. But that he instead is representing what is worth praising in Turkish culture is mostly illustrated by his work, which stands among the best of literary accomplishments.