That My Name Is Red is mostly about a character called Black (like the ink on this page) is the kind of irony that characterizes this whole novel, a murder mystery in the manner of Umberto Eco’s Il nome della rosa (1980; Name of the Rose, 1984). Like that book, this is a murder mystery set within a very confined group, not of monks this time, but miniaturists. These painters and craftsmen work for the Ottoman sultan Murad III, illustrating the manuscripts that glorify his victories and rule. Pamuk supplies ample history, as well as a chronology in the back of the book, so the reader knows that 1591 was a twilight period for miniaturists. Murad III was a munificent patron of their art, especially after the empire entered a period of extended peace. However, the golden glow of the era comes from the sun setting on an artistic tradition that had spread, along with the precious secret of red ink, from China across Central Asia to Turkey over the course of many centuries and countless wars.
Now the miniaturists’ traditions are under attack, and murder is the least of their problems. They are a doomed lot, and the book provides a “melancholy elegy to the inspiration, talent, and patience of all the masters who’d painted and illuminated in these lands over the years.”
All depictions of humans and animals are considered suspect throughout the Muslim world, which accounts for the primacy of abstract ornamentation in Arabic and Islamic art. In 1591, miniaturists were warned by fundamentalists that on Judgment Day they would be expected to bring their creations to lifeor face eternal damnation for challenging the supremacy of Allah’s creation. These artists, whose art had roots in China and Persia, tried to rationalize illustration as a development of calligraphy and ornamentation, arguing that “images are the story’s blossoming in color.” Objects and people are stylized. There is no attempt to depict individuals, they claim, but universals, not people or horses as the artist sees them, but as they are in the mind of Allah.
At the same time that miniaturists are under theological attack, the aesthetic primacy of their work is undercut by the success of Western techniques. The sultan himself is so taken by “Frankish” painting, with its mastery of perspective and portraiture, that he wants to adapt these methods to Ottoman illustrations. The mere idea of this stirs up fundamentalist elements in Istanbul, followers of the Hoja of Erzuumi, who feel that to paint the sultan in such a way would amount to blasphemy.
The Hoja never puts in an appearance, but a mob of his followers finally destroy the coffee shop where the miniaturists congregate. Coffee is bad enough by itself, but coffee shops are dens of every conceivable vice, and this particular one is made unbearable by the presence of a storyteller who mocks the fundamentalists.
This storyteller sits calmly at the heart of this novel, which has no single “storyteller,” but a series of narrators, starting with the corpse of the first murder victim. Characters pass the story from one to the next, and back again. They address the reader and point out the inconsistencies and implausibilities of the story, as one would expect in a postmodernist work. It is not just the dead that talk directly to the reader, but the color red, as well as series of drawingsincluding a dog, a tree, a gold coin, and deathall of which are given voice by the coffeehouse storyteller. It just so happens that these are the same images that the miniaturists were painting for the sultan’s secret project (under the supervision of Enishte Effendi, the second victim). Thus, in a way, the novel in the reader’s hands is the secret project. Pictures are not the only representational art, after all. Storytelling, too, is deeply distrusted because it replaces the Creator’s world with the writer’s, which is seen as a blasphemous challenge to Allah.
It is nonetheless impossible for humans not to tell stories, and there are many tales within this novel. Aside from the storyteller, whose individual character is always hidden behind the objects he gives voice to (like a good novelist), all the characters repeatedly explain their aesthetic and moral...
(The entire section is 1747 words.)