My Name is Red (Orhan Pamuk)

Posted: July 4, 2014 in fiction
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This is a murder mystery set in sixteenth-century Istanbul. It is a time and place of intersection, where Europe meets Asia, when traditional Islam meets the Renaissance. The community of characters we have to deal with, though, is rather small, a community of artists. I rather like the epistolary format, both for the intimacy it creates with a community (instead of with a single person) and for the fact of short chapters. I don’t know if authors realize how much of my enjoyment of a book comes from chapter length, but I do like to feel as if I’m getting somewhere, and not wandering in the stream-of-consciousness bogs of The Sound and the Fury. Following Shakespeare’s lead, here’s the cast of narrators, in order of authority:

Master Osman leads the illuminators’ workshop. He is responsible for determining the direction of visual art in Istanbul. Painting is forbidden by the Qur’an, but people began drawing decorative borders around calligraphed manuscripts, and those borders drifted from the strictly geometrical to having some figures. The figures eventually took on their own scenes. Under Osman’s training, the goal of the illustrators is to show a scene from Allah’s point of view. If we can see as God sees, then we can understand, love, and obey Him more completely. The miniaturists are thus arriving closer to Allah themselves, and helping those noblemen who read their books to do the same. If a miniaturist is pious and talented, then one day Allah will reward him with blindness, so the forms of this world, limited and temporary, do not interfere with the heavenly vision. Under Osman’s direction, the workshop’s style comes from the old masters of Herat, who were influenced by Chinese, Indian, and Persian art.

Enishte Effendi is an older illuminator who has traveled in Europe and thus been influenced by the Venetian portrait painters of the Renaissance. The Franks (all European infidels are Franks) do not see things from God’s point of view; they paint from their own perspective, showing things as a man would see them, or a dog in the street. They also paint a person in such detail that you’d be able to recognize him from his portrait, which runs counter to the modesty expected in a Muslim; they also place a person in the center of a picture, as if he were the center of the universe. Enishte represents a threat to Osman’s order of things: the introduction of foreign ideas into society. When the sultan wants a book designed with European influences, he commissions Enishte to oversee the project instead of using the official workshop. Enishte involves the four best of the young masters, listed next. But first, an excerpt from his conversation with the sultan about the book:

“It is the story that’s essential,” our wisest and most Glorious Sultan had said. “A beautiful illustration elegantly completes the story. An illustration that does not complement a story, in the end, will become but a false idol. Since we cannot possibly believe in an absent story, we will naturally begin believing in the picture itself. This would be no different than the worship of idols in the Kaaba that went on before Our Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, had destroyed them. If not as part of a story, how would you propose to depict this red carnation, for example, or that insolent dwarf over there?”

“By exposing the carnation’s beauty and uniqueness.”

“In the arrangement of your scene, then, would you situate the flower at the precise center of the page?”

“I was afraid,” my Enishte said, “I panicked momentarily when I realized where Our Sultan’s thoughts were taking me.”

What filled my Enishte with fear was the notion of situating at the center of the page – and thereby, the world – something other than what God had intended.

“Thereafter,” Our Sultan had said, “you’ll want to exhibit a picture in whose center you’ve situated a dwarf.” It was as I had assumed. “But this picture could never be displayed: after a while, we’d begin to worship a picture we’ve hung on a wall, regardless of the original intentions. If I believed, heaven forbid, the way these infidels do, that the Prophet Jesus was also the Lord God himself, then I’d also hold that God could be observed in this world, and even, that He could manifest in human form; only then might I accept the depiction of mankind in full detail and exhibit such images. You do understand that, eventually, we would unthinkingly begin worshiping any picture that is hung on a wall, don’t you?”

My Enishte said: “I understood it quite well, and because I did, I was afraid of what we both were thinking.”

“For this reason,” Our Sultan remarked, “I could never allow my portrait to be displayed.”

“Though this is exactly what he wanted,” whispered my Enishte, with a devilish titter.

Elegant Effendi is the master gilder of the group. He impresses the gold leaf onto the manuscripts. His murder is the first event that gets the plot moving. He is laden with doubt and guilt about the project they are working on, because he spends a lot of time listening to a fire-and-brimstone preacher in town. This preacher is calling for a return to a stricter Islam, getting away from drinking coffee, drawing pictures, buggery, and anything else he sees as innovation. Because innovator describes someone (like Enishte) who introduces new ideas into a group of believers, it’s one of the doctrinal insults in Islam even today. Elegant has the first section of narration, speaking from the bottom of a well three days after his death.

Butterfly is the most popular illuminator. His drawings show such a lively spirit that everyone loves them, and he’s so good looking that everyone is at least a little in love with him (Osman and Olive, explicitly). When Osman retires or dies, he expects to take over his job.

When I draw a magnificent horse, I become a great master of old drawing that horse.

Stork is the most ambitious. He is the only illuminator to have gone to war so that he could draw battle scenes more accurately. He wants to take over Osman’s job. Really, really wants it.

When I draw a magnificent horse, I am who I am, nothing more.

Olive is more reserved than the others, isolated somewhat by his own temperament and somewhat by their prejudice against his origin in a gay-sex-traveling-beggar sect. I found him to be the most sympathetic of the illuminators.

When I draw a magnificent horse, I become that magnificent horse.

Butterfly, Stork, and Olive are the primary suspects. They have a sort of Huey/Dewey/Louie vibe to them because their narratives are always together, and we rarely see or hear of them individually. Each of them thinks he is the most talented artist of the four, but when working for Osman, they all contribute pieces to the same pictures. This merging of personality is culturally significant: Islam, even as it’s practiced today, emphasizes group rather than individual identities. There are a number of conversations about the evils of signing a drawing with the author’s name or with any identifying marks of personal style. There is no personal style; only mistakes made when conforming to the style of the old masters of Herat. The Muslims I live among seldom make individual choices on important questions: all points of doctrine and behavior are codified and clarified in the Qur’an and the Hadith, so there’s not much thinking they need to do for themselves. The further into the religion they become, the more likely they are to answer a question with a quotation than with an opinion. Conformity breeds unity, and to this end, shortly after the time of the novel Muslims stop illuminating manuscripts altogether to avoid the corrupt Frankish influence. The three illuminators also de-emphasize themselves by spending a lot of time telling parables of historic figures instead of talking about their own experiences.

Black Effendi is the protagonist. Enishte’s nephew, he declared his love for Enishte’s daughter before he had the wherewithal to support a wife and so was banished from Enishte’s house. He spends the next twelve years wandering the Ottoman Empire as a clerk or scribe for various nobles. His return to Istanbul is the second event that gets the plot moving. Many of the characters suspect Black of being the murderer because he is the new element in the community, but he provides himself with alibis before we know he needs them, so it is hard for me as a reader to suspect him. Besides, all he really cares about is getting back together with Enishte’s daughter, the beautiful Shekure. Enishte enlists him to write the stories for his book, but Black never has any ideas to get him started.

The murderer often feels like a fifth presence among this group of equals; even though he begins narrating before you meet the Three Illuminators, he keeps the two sides of his personality so separate that we don’t know who he is until the end. There’s a scene at the end when the four are struggling together, and when the murderer narrates, he feels separate from Butterfly, Stork, Olive, and Black, as if Brad Pitt were pointing the gun in Edward Norton’s hand. I tend not to speculate on the identity of the murderer in a mystery novel (theories ruin the suspense), but the murderer here continually asks us if we know who he is – he wants to be found.

The storyteller is never named, that I can remember. The illuminators working on Enishte’s book all frequent the same coffeehouse in the evenings (alcohol is forbidden, so they drink coffee instead), and the storyteller asks one or the other of them to give him a picture that he can use to tell a story with. They give him quick knockoffs of the pictures they’re using for Enishte’s book, and he improvises some pretty awesome stories. They’re usually pretty funny, with some fairly serious stuff thrown in, fit for an audience of artists taking a break after work. Even though he’s often kind of invisible, he points out most of the important themes, particularly the conflict between those who work by providing leisure (it’s not exactly entertainment) and Elegant’s overzealous preacher. From his story about the tree:

A great European master miniaturist and another great master artist are walking through a Frank meadow discussing virtuosity and art. As they stroll, a forest comes into view before them. The more expert of the two says to the other: “Painting in the new style demands such talent that if you depicted one of the trees in this forest, a man who looked upon that painting could come here, and if he so desired, correctly select that tree from among the others.”

I thank Allah that I, the humble tree before you, have not been drawn with such intent. And not because I fear that if I’d been thus depicted all the dogs in Istanbul would assume I was a real tree and piss on me: I don’t want to be a tree, I want to be its meaning.

And what does a tree mean?

I was meant to be among the pages of this illuminated manuscript that I sadly heard was completed today. Unfortunately, on a cold winter’s day, the Tatar courier who was carrying me as he crossed a rocky mountain pass was ambushed by thieves. First they beat the poor Tatar, then they robbed him and raped him in a manner befitting thieves before mercilessly killing him. As a result, I know nothing about the page I’ve fallen from. My request is that you look at me and ask: “Were you perhaps meant to provide shade for Mejnun disguised as a shepherd as he visited Leyla in her tent?” or “Were you meant to fade into the night, representing the darkness in the soul of a wretched and hopeless man?” How I would’ve wanted to complement the happiness of two lovers who fled from the whole world, traversing oceans to find solace on an island rich with birds and fruit! I would’ve wanted to shade Alexander during the final moments of his life on his campaign to conquer Hindustan as he died from a persistent nosebleed brought on by sunstroke. Or was I meant to symbolize the strength and wisdom of a father offering advice on love and life to his son? Ah, to which story was I meant to add meaning and grace?

This tree captures the feeling that many people in the book have. They were meant for something, but they’ve somehow slipped away from their fate. They search for meaning in their lives but don’t know where to find it. They look to the stories they illuminate, but their own stories end up being different. Life doesn’t actually repeat itself, so maybe the new European mimesis is just an illusion. It does introduce shadows, after all. A Muslim illustrator is such a contradiction that they feel like hybrids. The murderer’s split personality is the most obvious representation of this, but there’s some internal division in all of them. The miniaturists focused on in this novel have begun working at home, separating themselves from the collectivity of the workshop; it is to be expected that the isolation will lead to emotional crises and mental illness.

Orhan is Enishte’s younger grandson. You’ll notice that this is also the author’s first name. At one point his mother says that there’s no lie he won’t tell for the sake of a good story. It kind of feels like an apology for having written a work of fiction, like Chaucer’s retractions.

So, are there any women in this book? Well, Shakespeare always listed them last, remember?

Shekure is Enishte’s beautiful daughter. She forms the center of the domestic drama storyline. People think of Shekure as beautiful, but they ignore the ways that she is also intelligent and brave. Her husband is a soldier who went to war four years earlier and never came back. She lived with his family until his brother raped her and she moved back in with her father. Despite the rape, she and Hasan love each other; she just can’t trust him. He’s mostly cleaned up his act, but the reappearance of Black sends him back into a violent frame of mind. Shekure is also in love with Black, even though/because he’s completely different. It’s easier to admit her feelings for Black, but she knows that she genuinely feels for Hasan too. There’s at least one more man who is in love with her, though she only has feelings for these two.

Esther is a clothes peddler. An illiterate Jew, she acts like the Yente of the town, passing messages between lovers. It’s a more productive business than selling cloth. Even today, Muslim men and women live separately. Shekure can go to the market by herself, but in the place where I live, women don’t drive. Women only have contact with the men in their families, because it is assumed that men have little control over their sexual impulses. History, both real and the imagined one in the novel, seems to support that idea. In the novel, men are expected to be bisexual; there are boys for before marriage, and after marrying the boys are still there. Yes, the Qur’an forbids it, but it also forbids painting. The women are so isolated and have so little choice that their sexuality is rarely an issue. As a cultural outsider, Esther can transgress boundaries that no one else can – she can speak with both men and women. However, it’s no mistake that when the storyteller adopts the persona of a woman, complete with makeup, it becomes his last performance. Gender comes with strict rules that must be followed.

You’ll notice that this book fails the Bechdel Test. I can’t even talk about the female characters without involving men. Matchmaking is not just Esther’s business; her interior life is consumed with it. There is the potential for some sort of friendship between Shekure and her father’s housekeeper Hayriye, but the fact that Hayriye is sleeping with Enishte blurs their social positions. Without a clear understanding of which is the lady of the house, they spend their days in tacit conflict. In the absence of men they stick together for support without liking each other. I suppose you could blame some of the inequality on women’s position in society, but the author could have given Shekure a sister, or a daughter. He didn’t have to isolate the women.

I’m not a Muslim, for very convincing personal reasons, but I do like the way God is represented in the novel. Not as He is described by the characters, but in this scene when one of the murder victims goes to heaven:

My mounting joy and flowing tears were abruptly poisoned by a nagging doubt. Guilt-ridden and impatient in my uncertainty, I asked Him:

“Over the last twenty years of my life, I’ve been influenced by the infidel illustrations that I saw in Venice. There was even a time when I wanted my own portrait painted in that method and style, but I was afraid. Instead, I later had Your World, Your Subjects and Our Sultan, Your Shadow on Earth, depicted in the manner of the infidel Franks.”

I didn’t remember His voice, but I recalled the answer He gave me in my thoughts.

“East and West belong to me.”

I could barely contain my excitement.

“All right then, what is the meaning of it all, of this . . . of this world?”

“Mystery,” I heard in my thoughts, or perhaps, “mercy,” but I wasn’t certain of either.

If God exists, He is for everyone; His love includes everyone, regardless of which dogma tribe they belong to. Labels like Muslim, Christian, Ottoman, or Frank are just not important. At some level, we’re all infidels, unfaithful to whichever belief system we espouse. Life doesn’t fit into the rigid categories that belief systems encourage, so as we confront the world, we use the strategies that are most expedient to get us through. We lie, we steal, we eat at restaurants that don’t compost their vegetable waste. The important question is, how do we respond to our own faithlessness?

Mystery and mercy.

We must accept the limitations of doctrinal systems. There are some things we are never going to know or understand. Some of the things people say are mysteries I think are actually bullshit, but it’s important to recognize that the world is bigger, stranger, and more beautiful than any set of statements we could make about it. No matter how much experience we gain, we retain this capacity for wonder.

And mercy. We forgive ourselves almost automatically, and we forgive others because they are equivalent selves. One of the struggles of my life has been to let go of the search for ideal people and situations – not because they don’t exist, I think they do, but because the relentless pursuit of the perfect keeps me from enjoying the good. There are so many good, imperfect people to love in this world.

In some ways, I think this is the meaning of it all, of this world: to learn to love what we can’t understand. Mystery and mercy, uncertainty and compassion so blended that we can’t separate them, and no longer want to. Or, in another word, acceptance.

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