It seems like every time I write one of these blogs I find myself apologizing for not writing more. Oh well. I have a few things to talk about these days, so I’ll probably start writing about them eventually I’m sure.
I finally got around to reading My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk. I say finally because my sister-in-law recommended Pamuk, a Turkish writer who won the Nobel Prize in literature back in 2006, sometime during my first couple of years of college. She recommended Red as a starting point, but I happened to find another novel of his, Snow, at a Half Priced Books and so I picked it up first. I figured if I liked it enough I’d feel motivated to go and find Red somewhere.
Snow follows an expat Turkish poet named Ka as he returns to his home city of Kars in Eastern Turkey as a journalist, ostensibly to investigate a recent series of suicides among young girls, but also to try and reconnect with a woman from his past who is newly divorced. The suicides storyline quickly expands to encompass a much larger conflict that lies at the heart of not just Pamuk’s novel, but Turkish national identity, and arguably much of contemporary politics and culture: the secular vs. the religious. The deaths of the young girls revolve around a decision made by a local headmaster to ban headscarves from his school. A recurring question for Ka then becomes why these girls felt driven to take their own lives, which quickly leads him into the world of political Islam as it is flourishing in Kars. As he moves deeper into that world and begins to reconnect with Ipek, his youth’s lost love, Kars is hit by a snow storm which cuts it off from the outside world, making room within the city for some pretty spectacular events. I won’t get into details here, largely because you should just go read the book yourself.
Snow is downright fantastic in how it addresses fundamental questions of not just Turkish national identity, but universal questions of belief and doubt, of love and violence, all while writing into existence the political consciousness of Pamuk’s nation. Despite all that, I never actually bothered to pick up My Name is Red like my sister-in-law had originally recommended. Until now. And that’s a very good thing.
My Name is Red is probably, to some degree, a very English major-y kind of book. It’s one part murder mystery, one part Middle Eastern history lesson, and so very many parts meta-fictional breakdown of narrative, style, and authorship. The story takes place in 16th century Istanbul and follows a cast of characters as they investigate the death of a gilder working on a book being secretly prepared for their Sultan. The story is told from a wide variety of perspectives, including (though not by any means limited to) each of the other miniaturists (the artists who draw the pictures that will accompany the stories in the Sultan’s book), their mentor, his daughter, a man who has just recently returned from abroad who is in love with said daughter and has been for the past twelve years, a dog, a counterfeit gold coin, the color red, and death himself (Herself? Itself? Whatever, death gets to be asexual, deal with it). Pamuk weaves a hell of a tapestry in My Name is Red, one that is just as conceptually ambitious as it is beautiful.
On top of that impressive range of narrative voices, Pamuk heaps on a brilliant examination of what fiction is through the lens of these miniaturists and their philosophies on art. Questions of whether art should strive towards a simulacrum of personal perception and experience or towards a divine perspective divorced from the personal that moves the artist closer to God become more than just the minor squabbles of artists, as they turn into issues of blasphemy and heresy, often of life and death. In the process, Pamuk addresses the classic postmodern questions of authenticity and authorship, of trying to define a sense of self through artistic style, but manages to do so from a unique and powerful perspective, placing those questions in a political, religious, and historical context that is unique to Turkey. The human drama playing out alongside all this isn’t half bad either, but personally I’m a bit of a sucker for high concept murder mystery.
Basically, both books are brilliant and you should go read them. I certainly plan on getting more by Pamuk whenever I get the chance.