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Orhan Pamuk: Benim Adım Kırmızı (My Name Is Red)

A post-modernist detective story set in 16th century Istanbul is certainly an interesting proposition and Pamuk definitely makes it work. The story concerns a group of artists working on a secret illustrated book, ordered by the Sultan to celebrate his rule but done, contrary to tradition, in European style. There are three main miniaturists working on the project, known as Butterfly, Olive and Stork, nicknames given to them by the Head Illuminator, Master Osman. There is an illuminator called Elegant Effendi because his work is so elegant. There is the head of the Sultan’s project, Enishte Effendi. Enishte means uncle and he is so called because his nephew, Black, called him Enishte, so others followed. Black has just returned to Istanbul after twelve years away, to assist his uncle on the Sultan’s project. He had left because he was in love with Enishte’s daughter and his cousin, Shekure. He had declared his love to her and, as a result, his uncle had asked him to leave. He is still in love with Shekure. She had married a military officer in the meantime and they had two sons. However, her husband had disappeared in the Persia campaign and is believed dead. As there is no evidence of his death, she is still married to him. She had been living with her father-in-law and brother-in-law, Hasan, but Hasan had fallen in love with her and has assaulted her so her father-in-law had allowed her and her children to leave and go and live with her father. At the start of the novel, Hasan is trying to get her to return.

Pamuk tells the story through the characters. Each chapter is entitled I Am…, with the name of the character telling his, her or its story in the title. Not only do the main characters tell their story but we also hear from the victims after their deaths, from a six-year old boy (Shekure’s youngest son), from Satan, a dog, a horse, a gold coin, a tree, death and two dervishes who died over a hundred years ago. We also hear from the main suspects (by name) as well as from the murderer who does not identify himself till the very end. The start of the story is the tale of Elegant Effendi, the first victim, lying dead at the bottom of a well. Naturally, as this is Pamuk and 16th century Istanbul, this is not your conventional detective story. Indeed, the method used to find out who the murderer is involves detailed examination of the various illuminations and miniatures to spot tell-tale traces of similarities between a painting found on Elegant Effendi’s corpse and a missing painting stolen from the second victim.

But, of course, not only does Pamuk keep us guessing as to the identity of the murderer, though we have soon narrowed it down to three possibilities, but he also discourses on a variety of subjects. The main topic, of course, is art, in particular the differences between European art (using techniques such as shade and perspective) and Islamic art (which is not as the artist sees but as Allah sees). The artists themselves are struggling with this, nominally being fully in favour of Islamic art but dabbling with European techniques and even doing some European art on the side for the tourists (including porn). But there is no doubt that European art is considered counterfeit, like the counterfeit European gold coins that are appearing in Istanbul. Of course, related to this, there is an Islamic backlash, with a fundamentalist preacher condemning the move from true Islam and backing up his views with violence. Love, loyalty, women’s rights and the whole idea of artistic creation are some of the other themes Pamuk discusses. Indeed, the plot is something of a MacGuffin and when the murderer is finally revealed, it seems almost irrelevant. For Pamuk is one of those writers who tells his tale in such an elegant and intelligent manner that plot is decidedly secondary.

Publishing history

First published in 1998 by İletişim
First English translation 2001 by Knopf/Faber & Faber