My Name is Red is Orhan Pamuk’s latest in a line of books which seek to capture the melancholy beauty , pain and contrariness that is his hometown, Istanbul. Set in 16th century Istanbul at the height of the Ottoman Empire, the novel revolves around the murder of a master miniaturist for reasons that include the creation of a highly secretive and possibly sacrilegious book commissioned by the Emperor himself. At this point, comparisons with The Name of the Rose will inevitably crop up, seeing as both are historical murder mysteries. While Umberto Eco’s tour de force was a brilliant and intelligent work which dabbled in esotery , Pamuk’s book is a more emotional and beautiful creature, appealing more to the heart than to the brain.
Orhan uses the voices of the various characters to guide us through the turmoil and changing landscape of the empire, challenged by the technological and artistic advances of the West. This collision of cultures in the Ottoman empire leaves the miniaturists with a choice, stick to the ways of old or be engulfed by the oncoming avalanche of Westernism. Pamuk’s Ottoman Empire evokes all the old stereotypes established by such childhood tales of the east such as 1001 Nights and the legends of Haroun Al Raschid. Istanbul is lush and exotic; the sultanate is rich beyond imagining and the glory and power of the sultan is sacrosanct. The land is rich with tradition and dozens of Oriental legends are seamlessly interwoven into the fabric of this book. As Pamuk strives to explain the grand scheme of art, explaining its relationship to the will of God and other variables, he ends up creating art. Beauty oozes out of Pamuk’s exquisitely crafted sentences and one must assume that they must sound more beautiful in the original Turkish, losing something in the(albeit wonderful) translation.
Ultimately this work is more poem than book, spinning delicate sentences that murmur an ode to an art form that will soon be devoured by a cultural deluge from the West.