Synopses & Reviews
At once a fiendishly devious mystery, a beguiling love story, and a brilliant symposium on the power of art, My Name Is Red
is a transporting tale set amid the splendor and religious intrigue of sixteenth-century Istanbul, from one of the most prominent contemporary Turkish writers.
The Sultan has commissioned a cadre of the most acclaimed artists in the land to create a great book celebrating the glories of his realm. Their task: to illuminate the work in the European style. But because figurative art can be deemed an affront to Islam, this commission is a dangerous proposition indeed. The ruling elite therefore mustn't know the full scope or nature of the project, and panic erupts when one of the chosen miniaturists disappears. The only clue to the mystery or crime? lies in the half-finished illuminations themselves. Part fantasy and part philosophical puzzle, My Name is Red is a kaleidoscopic journey to the intersection of art, religion, love, sex, and power.
"Pamuk's novel could cause a sensation....Widely respected abroad for his previous novels...Pamuk should gain new readers here with this more accessible, charming and intellectually satisfying narrative." Publishers Weekly
"[A] whimsical but provocative exploration of the nature of art in an Islamic society....A rich feast of ideas, images, and lore." Kirkus Reviews
"This intellectual mystery will appeal to fans of Eco, Pears, and Perez-Reverte." Nancy Pearl, Booklist
"Erdag Goknar deserves praise for the cool, smooth English in which he has rendered Pamuk's finespun sentences, passionate art appreciations, sly pedantic debates, [and] eerie urban scenes." John Updike, The New Yorker
"Pamuk is a novelist and a great one....My Name is Red is by far the grandest and most astonishing contest in his internal East-West war....[Readers will] be lofted by the paradoxical lightness and gaiety of the writing, by the wonderfully winding talk perpetually about to turn a corner, and by the stubborn humanity in the characters' maneuvers to survive. It is a humanity whose lies and silences emerge as endearing and oddly bracing individual truths." Richard Eder, The New York Times Book Review
"It is neither passion nor homicide that makes...My Name is Red the rich and essential book that it is....It is Pamuk's rendering of the intense life of artists negotiating the devilishly sharp edge of Islam 1,000 years after its birth that elevates [the novel] to the rank of modern classic....To read Pamuk is to be steeped in a paradox that precedes our modern-day feuds between secularism and fundamentalism." Jonathan Levi, The Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Most enchanting....Playful, intellectually challenging, with an engaging love story and a full canvas of memorable characters, My Name is Red is a novel many, many people will enjoy." David Walton, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"Pamuk is getting at a subject that has compelled modern thinkers from Heidegger to Derrida....My Name is Red is a meditation on authenticity and originality....An ambitious work on so many levels at once." Melvin Jules Bukiet, Chicago Tribune
"Intensely exhilarating....Arresting and provocative....To say that...My Name is Red is a murder mystery is like saying that Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov is a murder mystery: it is true, but the work so richly transcends the conventional limitations of genre as to make the definition seem almost irrelevant....It conveys in a wholly convincing manner the emotional, cerebral, and physical texture of daily life, and it does so with great compassion, generosity, and humanity....An extraordinary achievement." Dick Davis, Times Literary Supplement (UK)
"My Name is Red is a fabulously rich novel, highly compelling....This pivotal book, which absorbed Pamuk through the 1990s, could conclusively establish him as one of the world's finest living writers." Guy Mannes-Abbott, The Independent (UK)
"[B]oth an examination of the way figurative art is viewed within Islam and a love story that demonstrates the tricky mechanics of marriage laws. Award-winning Turkish author Pamuk creatively casts the novel with colorful characters...and provides a palpable sense of atmosphere of the Ottoman Empire that history and literary fans will appreciate." Library Journal
"The interweaving of human and philosophical intrigue is very much as I remember it in The Name of the Rose....But, in my view, his book is by far the better of the two....More than any other book I can think of, it captures not just Istanbul's past and present contradictions, but also its terrible, timeless beauty. It's almost perfect, in other words. All it needs is the Nobel Prize." Maureen Freely, New Statesman (UK)
"A perfect example of Pamuk's method as a novelist, which is to combine literary trickery with page-turning readability....As a meditation on art, in particular, My Name is Red is exquisitely subtle, demanding and repaying the closest attention....We in the West can only feel grateful that such a novelist as Pamuk exists, to act as a bridge between our culture and that of a heritage quite as rich as our own." Tom Holland, Daily Telegraph (UK)
"A wonderful novel, dreamy, passionate and august, exotic in the most original and exciting way. Orhan Pamuk is indisputably a major novelist." Philip Hensher, The Spectator (UK)
"Readers...will find themselves lured into a richly described and remarkable world....Reading the novel is like being in a magically exotic dream....Splendidly enjoyable and rewarding....A book in which you can thoroughly immerse yourself." Allan Massie, The Scotsman (UK)
"[In this] magnificent new novel...Pamuk takes the reader into the strange and beautiful world of Islamic art, in which Western notions no longer make sense....In this world of forgeries, where some might be in danger of losing their faith in literature, Pamuk is the real thing, and this book might well be one of the few recent works of fiction that will be remembered at the end of this century." Avkar Altinel, The Observer (UK)
About the Author
Orhan Pamuk is the author of seven novels and the recipient of major Turkish and international literary awards. He is one of Europe's most prominent novelists, and his work has been translated into twenty-six languages. He lives in Istanbul.
Reading Group Guide
1. Have Pamuk’s books changed your perceptions of Turkey? What insights do they offer into the country’s history and place in the world?
2. Have his books given you a deeper understanding of the Muslim world? Have they altered your opinion about the current situation in the Middle East and other parts of the world where Islam is the dominant religion? Have you become more or less sympathetic?
3. Pamuk’s novels range over a wide span of time, from the sixteenth century (My Name Is Red) to the present day (Snow). Compare your reactions to the historical novels and the contemporary works. Which do you prefer and why?
4. In these books what impact do the tensions between Eastern and Western beliefs and customs have on individual lives, on the relations between classes and ethnic groups, or on political debates? What competing ideologies (or ways of thinking) affect the characters’ behavior and emotional responses? Consider the ethical, religious, and social dilemmas individuals face and how they resolve them.
5. Snow is prefaced by epigraphs from Robert Browning, Stendahl, Dostoevsky, and Joseph Conrad. How does each of them apply not only to Snow, but also to the other Pamuk books you have read? Citing specific passages, how would you characterize the author’s feelings about Western attitudes toward the Muslim world?
6. What role do perceptions—or misperceptions—about Islamic law and religious customs play in the assumptions Westerners make about Muslims? Are there current controversies in the United States or Europe that support your view?
7. Do Pamuk’s depictions of the relationships between men and women conform to your impressions of romance, marriage, and family life in a Muslim society? How are women presented in the historical novels? In what ways do the women in the novels set in the present (or in the recent past) embody both traditional female roles and the new opportunities they have to express their opinions and act on their beliefs?
8. Istanbul opens with an essay about Pamuk’s feelings as a child that “somewhere in the streets of Istanbul . . . there lived another Orhan so much like me that he could pass for my own twin, even my double” (page 3). Many reviewers, including John Updike, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, and Charles McGrath, have written about what McGrath calls “an enduring Pamuk preoccupation: the idea of doubleness or split identity” (New York Times, October 13, 2006). Can you find examples of doubleness in the books you have read, and if so, what do these add to the story? What insights do they reveal about Pamuk’s own sense of identity?
9. What techniques does Pamuk use to bring his characters, real and fictional, to life? How do his descriptions of settings, manners, and other everyday details enhance the portraits he creates? What use does he make of humor, exaggeration, and other stylistic flourishes in his depictions of particular situations, conversations, musings, and arguments?
10. Pamuk employs many of the literary devices associated with postmodern and experimental fiction. (McGrath, for example, notes his use of “narratives within narratives, texts that come alive, labyrinths of signs and symbols . . .”). In what ways do his books echo Italo Calvino’s allegorical fantasies? What do they share with the writings of Jorge Luis Borges and other magical realists? What aspects of his literary style can be traced to earlier masters of innovative fiction like Kafka and Nabokov?
11. In an essay on the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa in Other Colors, Pamuk writes, “It is clear . . . that there is a sort of narrative novel that is particular to the countries of the Third World. Its originality has less to do with the writer’s location than with the fact that he knows he is writing far from the world’s literary centers and he feels this distance inside himself” (page 168). Discuss how this manifests itself in Pamuk’s own works, as well as the works of Vargas Llosa and other authors writing from the Third World. Are there creative advantages to living and writing “far from the world’s literary centers”?
12. Pamuk writes in Istanbul of authors who left their homelands—Conrad, Nabokov, Naipaul: “Their imaginations were fed by exile, a nourishment drawn not through roots, but through rootlessness” (page 6). If you have read the works of these writers, or other authors in exile, do you agree that their books reflect—in style or in content—the effects of living in a new, foreign culture? To what extent is Pamuk’s writing rooted in the storytelling traditions of Eastern cultures? In what ways does it show the influence of his early exposure to Western literature, his participation in international literary circles, and his longtime association with American academia?
13. Despite the many differences between the societies Pamuk describes and our own, why do his characters and their behavior resonant with contemporary English-speaking readers? Are there aspects of Turkish mores that make it difficult to sympathize or engage with the characters in the novels? Do these factors also influence your reactions to his autobiographical pieces, literary criticism, and cultural observations in both Other Colors and Istanbul?
14. How does Pamuk’s personal history, as well as the plots of some novels, mirror the complicated history of Turkey? Consider such topics as: the decline and dissolution of the once powerful Ottoman Empire; the sweeping changes initiated by Atatürk in the 1920s; the conflicting desires to preserve Turkey’s distinctive heritage and to become more active in the global community; and the rise of fundamentalist Islam throughout Middle East today.
15. In discussing the importance of novels, Pamuk says, “Modern societies, tribes, and nations do their deepest thinking about themselves by reading novels; through reading novels, they are able to argue about who they are” (Other Colors, page 233). Do you agree? What can novels provide that nonfiction books and other media do not?
(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)
A Conversation with
My Name Is Red
Q. You have used the rather unusual device of telling this story through many narrators. In fact, no two consecutive chapters are in the same voice. Why did you structure the novel this way? What challenges did this structure present?
A. It was so much fun to impersonate my characters! I enjoyed finding the voice of a sixteenth century ottoman miniaturist, a mother of two children who is looking for a husband, the voice of her kids, the demonic voice of a murderer, and the narrative of a dead man on his way to heaven. Not only my characters speak in my story but objects and colors as well. I thought all these distinctive voices would produce a rich music—the texture of daily life in Istanbul four hundred years ago. These shifts in viewpoint also reflect the novel’s main concern about looking at the world from our point of view versus the point of view of a supreme being. All of this is related to the use of perspective in painting; my characters line in a world where the restrictions of perspective do not exist so they speak in their own voice with their own humor.
Q. One of the characters—the younger son of your heroine Shekure—is called Orhan. Is he your alter ego?
A. Orhan is not my alter ego; he is me. Most of the details and some of the anecdotes of the lonely mother and her son’s relationship are derived from my own experience. I also kept my mother’s and brother’s names in the story. The rivalry between the brothers, their constant quarrels, fights, and their negotiations about peace and jealousy of their mother are autobiographical. By carrying the details of my childhood into my historical novel, I hoped to give it a personal dimension.
The challenge of a historical novel is not to render a perfect imitation of the past, but to relate history with something new, enrich and change it with imagination and sensuousness of personal experience.
Q. What kind of research did you have to do to write a novel of such rich historical detail?
A. It took me six years to write this book. Of course, I spent a lot of time reading books and looking at picture, but I rarely thought that of it as "research." I’ve always enjoyed what I was reading and I read what I enjoyed. Ottomans were great record keepers and the records of the governor of Istanbul were well kept and published. So, for hours I used to read the prices of various clothes, carpers, fish or vegetables in Istanbul markets in a given year. This led to interesting discoveries; for example, I learned that barbers also performed circumcisions or pulled teeth for the right prices.
As for researching the paintings, that was more personal because beginning at the age of six, I’ve always thought that I would be a painter. When I was a kid I used to copy the Ottoman miniature that I came across in books. Later, I was influenced by Western painting and stopped painting when I was twenty when I began writing fiction.
Q. Could you explain the paradox of the miniaturist who achieves the heights of greatness only by going blind.
A. The paradox here is based on a very reasonable train of thought: If you were a medieval painter, your craft would be based on imitation and repetition (not on originality as is so often now claimed). The more you imitate and repeat, the more perfect you are. After years of painting and re-painting the same scenes and subjects, my painters’ begin to memorize. These are the beginning of the idea that a master painter does not need to see what he creates.
Q. Does the conflict between the Islamic painting aesthetic and the Western one have significance for you beyond the historical one? Are you trying to suggest something about two very distinct ways of viewing the world?
A. To be influenced by the western ways of portraiture is a dilemma for the traditional Islamic painter who is devoted to repetition and purification of traditional forms. Beyond this lie two different ways of seeing, painting, and even representing the world. One is that of seeing the world through the eyes of any individual person—looking at things from our humble point of view. The other is seeing the world through God’s eyes, from high above as the Islamic painters did, and perceiving the totality of, say a battle from above. The latter is more like seeing with the mind’s eye, rather than the eye itself.
I tried to tell my story in the manner of these Persian masters. These two distinctive ways of seeing the world and narrating stories are of course related to our cultures, histories, and what is now popularly called identities. How much are they in conflict? In my novel they even kill each other because of this conflict between east and west. But, of course, the reader, I hope, realizes that I do not believe in this conflict. All good art comes from mixing things from different roots and cultures, and I hope My Name is Red illustrates just that.
Q. Who are some of the writers and artists who have influenced you?
A. I am forty-eight, and at this age the idea of influence makes me nervous. I’d rather say that I learn and pick-up things from other authors. I’ve learned from Thomas Mann that the key to pleasures of historical fiction is the secret are of combining details. Italo Calvino taught me that inventiveness is as important as history itself. From Eco, I’ve learned that the form of the murder mystery can be gracefully used. But I have learned most from Marguerite Yoursenar; she wrote a brilliant essay about the tone and language in historical fiction.
What inspired me most for My Name is Red were the Islamic miniatures. Thousands of little details from countless miniatures that I’ve looked at took their place in the novel. Behind these scenes of love and war lie the classical Islamic texts because the miniatures were always drawn to illustrate the best scenes of stories that once upon a time everyone knew by heart and today, because of westernization, very few remember. My Name is Red is a homage to these forgotten stories and the wonderful pictures drawn for book lovers of the time.
Q. Your book had the largest first print run of any novel ever published in Turkey. How does that make you feel, and why do you think this novel had such broad appeal? How do you think the American audience will respond to this novel?
A. When a book sells that much in my part of the world the journalists always ask questions about the mysteries of the sales rather than the mysteries of the text. I always say that I do not know why the book sells that much. I cannot predict the response of the American reader either. But I always worry about such matters…Then, of course, I feel guilty about my worldly worries.
From the Hardcover edition.