on 3 September 2006
`MNIR' is a whodunit set in late 16th century Istanbul. An illustrator of manuscripts (Elegant Effendi) is murdered by one of his colleagues. Black Effendi, newly returned from exile, is set the task of finding the murderer by his uncle, for whom the victim was working when he was killed. As Black delves deeper into the output of the workshop in which Elegant worked, he uncovers many tensions between the workers, including over the intrusion of European techniques into Islamic illustration, the succession to the position of master of the workshop, professional jealousy and good old-fashioned lust. Black must unravel these strands to identify the murderer before the sultan makes good a threat to have the whole workshop arrested and tortured.
Parallels with Eco's `The Name of the Rose' are impossible to avoid. Both books are murder mysteries whose resolution is based in religious philosophy, and both play very cleverly with the idea of big religious concepts interacting with the baser aspects of human nature. Fans of one will enjoy the other. Pamuk's writing is more humanistic than Eco's, and perhaps less coldly academic. Black's investigations are woven in with a genuinely fascinating love story that becomes integral to the story, rather than just a distraction. In addition, Pamuk's writing is very beautiful, and the whole book is set against the background of a wintry and claustrophobic Istanbul that is very well described. Because of this, it is slow paced, occasionally too slow, and the murder mystery aspect becomes secondary to Black's own life in places. However, in general I really enjoyed reading `MNIR' and, despite it being a big book, finished it fairly quickly. It was enjoyable and cerebral, and a great piece of historical fiction.
Pamuk accomplishes a stunningly complex historical novel, the best that the genre can offer. With this story, you enter a world fundamentally different from the present day, in which the concerns and world view of the characters are slowly revealed. While there are some constants, such as the search for true love, miniaturists in 16C Turkey are part of a tradition almost totally alien from art today. That Pamuk can weave their very consciousness into a complex mystery novel is truly astonishing. There are many levels that fascinate.
First, of course, there is a murder mystery. As the narrative from various points of view unfolds, clues and many false paths are left for the reader to piece together. It is a dazzlingly elegant labyrinth that kept my mystified to the very last chapters.
Second, there is a man and woman bound by family and seeking fulfillment in love. In thrall to Islamic and Turkish tradition, they perform a long mating dance. If is beautiful, taut with emotion, and as suspenseful as the murder itself.
Third, the time period is at the close of the Ottoman Turks' golden age, when the dynamics behind the expansion of the empire are giving way to a far more conservative society, one that will seek to preserve rather than create, becoming famously decadent over the next 400 years of decline. This turning point is wonderfully and subtly evoked, obliquely and by inference. You also get a feel for the other empires and princes nearby.
Fourth, the reader is introduced to the Islamic tradition of figurative art. As idolatry was forbidden by the Koran, the portrayal of images (rather than exclusively geometric designs) was a risky business. This too is wonderfully evoked and explained. While extremely esoteric, it was not art for the masses, but rather at the behest of the Sultan himself, who would keep the works in a forbidden vault for himself and a few others or sent them as diplomatic gifts. Needless to say, it is opposed by fanatic zealots, who believe that images are a sin against Allah and their absence is the reason that Islamic armies had been beating Western infidels over the last 1000 years.
Fifth, with the invention of perspective in painting during the Renaissance, world art is entering a revolutionary phase: reality is coming to be observed and reproduced in a far more accurate way, which opened the doors to the development of verifiable scientific observation. Rather than allegorical renderings reflecting a neo-platonic ideal in the mind (or as many believed in God's mind), the goal was becoming the accurate portrayal of living subjects. Of course, this shift is controversial and is seen by the ancient masters as a betrayal of their teachings, which they violently protected. Venice, the empire's great rival, is held out as the exemplar of this approach.
Sixth, you get a view into an elite of the period, the miniaturists. How they were trained, what they thought, and how they managed their careers are at the heart of the plot. It is great fun and offers an intimate window into Ottoman society. Their reasoning and concerns - bizarre to the Western reader, resulting in self-mutilation (blinding) and other unfathomable behaviors - are vividly alive and wholly believable. Only a novel can do this about another time.
I was utterly spellbound by this story from page 1. Admittedly, it is rather recondite, but the rewards of a close read are truly worth the effort. This is the best novel by Pamuk I have so far read.
Recommended with the greatest enthusiasm.
on 2 February 2006
I have decided to write this review for 2 reasons:
1. I read the book (!)
2. The reviews haven't done the book justice.
I am native Turkish but having grown up and lived in the UK all my life it was easier for me to read the English translation of this book. Being Turkish I note that the translations were perfect, it has been translated EXACTLY. However, this doesn't take into consideration cultural understandings of terms and phrases. As a Turk it was easier for me to identify with these than perhaps other readers. I was quite surprised by some of the reviews for this book which I put down to "lost in translation" hence my own review...
I found the book original and hugely entertaining. It's a detective story of sorts with love thrown in. But Orhan Pamuk is dealing with lots of other issues too: differences in Eastern/Western art, culture and the impact of religion. Its a very original book and I would recommend it to anyone and everyone. Take it slow and it will all make sense. Promise!
Given the number of reviews the plot needs no further recounting. This is a multi-layered and demanding read that took several attempts to master it. The book has numerous short chapters with numerous narrators; sometimes a key human character in the story, other times a horse, a gold coin or the colour red. These 'characters' maintain a constant dialogue directly with the reader.
The translation is intrusive. It varies between an antique style and sudden incongruous modern terms or phrases that really grate - especially 'color'. I read this as a crime novel recommendation but that element is secondary. There is a murder and an investigation which uses the 'courtesan method' as a sort of 16th Century D.N.A./fingerprinting.
The real meat of the novel is all East v West, Franks v Ottomans, 'style' v 'tradition'. These subjects are explored in depth and to my surprise and pleasure I felt educated by Mr Pamuk. This is much more than a historical crime novel. However, this was not the motivation for puchasing and reading this book so caveat emptor.
Firstly, despite the way Faber have decided to promote this book, it's not a murder mystery in the way those words are usually understood: so if you're looking for a thriller with clues, twists and turns, this definitely isn't it. Partly for that reason I think the reviews which compare it with Eco's The Name of the Rose are off-point. That was a book which playfully refers to the intertextual nature of all reading; reading isn't what's at stake in Pamuk's book at all.
Instead it is a profound and engaging meditation on the contrasting and sometimes conflicting views of eastern and western aesthetics of art, especially visual and religious art: or, rather, the religiosity of art.
Yes, there is a murder which kicks off the story, and another one mid-way through (very brutal and disturbing) but who did it really isn't either the point or the driver of this book. There's also a love story at its heart, but one which draws on the Persian epics that it constantly refers to and so half invites and half resists comparisons with western love stories.
Other reviewers have complained about the narrative voices all sounding the same, and that is the case, but I assume because Pamuk isn't interested in writing a character-driver novel. Also don't read it if you're expecting a lush historical full of exotic detail as that's not the type of book it is (Gregory, Chadwick et al.)
In summary, this is an intellectually-accomplished and brave novel that deals with hard subjects. It's not a difficult read but it is a slow one, one that you need to take your time over and digest, not a page-turner where you can't wait to find out what happens next. I think it's an important book but it won't be to everyone's taste.
Reading the storyline of this novel and indeed some of the other reviews one could put off the purchase, however, don't be. To write a review is difficult as its a hard book to describe. On the negative side there are times when the descriptions of illumination and the comparison of painting styles between east and west are heavy going and sometimes I found myself reading whole chapters with no real understanding of their relevance. However, as I got further and further through the book everything slowly came into focus. In the end my only complaint was that there were no examples of illuminations within the book as it fired my imagination to see the work of these painters who were so clearly obsessive about perfecting their art. If you are more confused now, its a description of life in Istanbul,its a love story, its a detective novel, its a book about the conflicting cultures of east and west, its definately a book that makes one think but most of all its a interesting which unlike many books keeps ones attention until the end.
on 29 November 2010
"My Name Is Red" is a philosophical historical murder mystery reminiscent of Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose"; in both books the central philosophical issues are concerned with the clash between religious values and cultural ones. Whereas Eco's novel is a relatively straightforward first-person narrative, however, Orhan Pamuk's is told using a multiple narrator technique similar to that used in Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying". Moreover, not all of Pamuk's narrators are characters in the normal sense; there are also chapters narrated by a dead man, a dog, a horse, Satan, a coin and the colour red. (Hence the title).
The novel is set in Istanbul during the January of 1591. The Sultan, Murat III, has commissioned a magnificent book to celebrate the glories of his reign and of his empire and has ordered his miniaturists to illustrate it. He has also ordered that they should make use of artistic devices introduced to the Ottoman Empire by European painters- perspective, chiaroscuro and realistic portraiture. This suggestion, however, is highly controversial for religious reasons. According to the strictest interpretation of Islam, any pictorial representation of the world, especially of living beings, is idolatrous and therefore forbidden; artists should confine themselves to calligraphy and abstract patterns. Over the centuries, however, this stance had been softened. At the period of the story, Muslim artists, at least in Turkey, were permitted to create representational works of art, provided these were illustrations contained within a book, not freestanding works of art. They had to be executed in a highly stylised, non-realistic manner. The Sultan's commission is therefore a highly controversial one
The opening chapter is narrated by the ghost of Elegant Effendi, one of the Sultan's workshop of illustrators, who has been murdered. It is clear that the motive for his murder is connected to the dispute between traditionalist Islamic artists and those more progressive ones who accept the new innovations from the West; Elegant was one of the traditionalists and it seems that his murderer is one of the modernisers. The main suspects are three of his colleagues, normally referred to by their nicknames "Butterfly", "Olive" and "Stork". Another major character is Enishte Effendi, the painter in charge of the Sultan's book project, and another major strand in the plot concerns the romance between Enishte's daughter Shekure, a beautiful young widow, and her cousin "Black". (Presumably another nickname; we never learn his real name).
Although the novel deals with events which took place more than four hundred years ago, it nevertheless has implications for modern Turkish society. Although Turkey-in-Europe, a term which until the Balkan Wars of the early 1910s encompassed large parts of south-eastern Europe, is now confined to Istanbul and a small area to the north and west, the country still aspires to a European identity as well as an Islamic one, something shown by its ambition to join the EU. Although Islam is the religion of most of the population, the Turkish state has been officially secular since the 1920s, and the man who made it so, Kemal Ataturk, is regarded as a national hero. The clash between traditional Islamic values and secular Western ones remains at the heart of Turkish politics to this day, and the clear implication of Pamuk's novel is that his country's split identity is not something new. (It is perhaps significant that Sultan Murat was partly Turkish and partly European, having an Italian mother and a Ukrainian paternal grandmother). The novel itself can be seen as an expression of this dichotomy, having a historical Turkish setting but being written in a modernist European style.
The novel also deals with another dichotomy, that between religion and art. All institutionalised religion functions, to some degree at least, as a means of social control, setting or reinforcing boundaries between the permitted and the forbidden. Art seeks to cross boundaries and to explore forbidden territory, so there is always a potential tension between religious values and artistic ones, a tension which is increased when religion seeks to control not only the subject-matter of art but also the very form of artistic expression itself. The Christian clergy may have condemned certain subjects (particularly erotic ones) as immoral, but unlike Muslim preachers they never sought to stigmatise perspective or portraiture as being in themselves sacrilegious, something which may explain why art in the West was less conservative and constrained by tradition than it was in the Islamic world.
"My Name is Red" may be a story about a murder, but fans of Agatha Christie or Conan Doyle are likely to be disappointed if they approach it in the expectation that it will be a simple "whodunit" with an exotic setting. The three suspect miniaturists are not really characterised as individuals, so the investigations into which of them is in fact the murderer never generate much excitement. (The characters who do come across most strongly as individuals in their own right are the two young lovers Black and Shekure, Enishte and Master Osman, the elderly head of the Sultan's workshop). The novel works on several levels; it is more than just a crime story or a love story. It is also vivid portrayal of Turkish society at a particular point in history and a stimulating novel of ideas. A fascinating read. My one complaint is that the translator could have done more to explain points relating to Turkish and Islamic history, literature, art and thought to a Western audience.
on 28 November 2007
The story of the book 'MY NAME IS RED' revolvs around the Turkey of sixteenth century. But the point Orhan Pamuk makes is the recent one.
The gist of the story is that certain communities block modernity in any field of life. Even the artists are prevented, even beheaded, for disobeying the so-called religious truth.
In 'MY NAME IS RED' there are number of point of views, and the several story tellers. But that has barely affected the flow of the narrative: Orhan Pamuk is such a master of keeping continuity.
Primarily the novel walks around the life of the miniature artists living in Istanbul of late sixteenth century. But it depicts all types of human follies and demonstrates how the negative forces sway over the positive ones.
Narrative techniques Orhan Pamuk displays in his novels justifies the Nobel Prize given to him. He loves his city of Istanbul and he praises the city for its unmatched history of arts and the human tragedies the wars had given to the city.
on 13 April 2014
If it was William Faulkner who first really promoted the multi-narrator novel as a way of showing the unreliable point of view of characters such as Caroline, Quentin and Benjy in The Sound and the Fury, Orhan Pamuk takes this whole approach to another level.
Here we have a narrative about the Ottoman Empire told from the point of view of a horse in a painting, a corpse, a gold coin, Satan and the colour red as well as the more conventional narratives of the various artists or miniaturists who are involved in the creation of the great work itself.
At times as a reader you feel confused, at times almost overwhelmed. I found it best simply to allow myself to be swept along by the various narratives as if I were sailing on the great Bosphorus itself. Don't feel obliged to follow every detail. Simply let yourself be carried along on the poetry of it all. You can taste the city. Later it becomes clearer through the overlapping layers of narrative. Gradually you begin to understand a little of the puzzle about what is going on.
There is such richness in the evocation of Istanbul itself, in the smells of the marketplace and the dark shadowy houses and the bitter cold of the winter nights. And in the narrative of the very beguiling Shakure with all her inconsistency and very physical adoration of her children, Pamuk is at his best.
Here is a writer who can convey emotion at its most visceral while also discussing very subtly the intellectual and religious differences between east and west in the great melting pot that is Istanbul. Pamuk writes about the great truths. He writes with soul.
This is a complex book. I found it extremely slow going, as it was clearly working on so many levels, and had so much to say that I almost felt that I should read each page twice and inwardly digest. As such it cannot be said to be a page turner, despite the fact that it is a thriller of sorts.
It revolves around the work of Muslim artist, Black, who is trying to work out who murdered one of his colleagues and why. It plunges us as the reader into the history of Muslim art, and the great theological questions of the day. It is an intense narrative full of asides and stories through which the main plot twists and turns.
This can be a richly rewarding book, but if you are looking for an easy read, or one which reveals its secrets after just a little thought, it probably isn't for you.