The first chapter of Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red is entitled “I Am A Corpse” and begins with the dead man talking about how he was murdered and thrown to the bottom of the well:
I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well. Though I drew my last breath long ago and my heart has stopped beating, no one, apart from that vile murderer, knows what’s happened to me.
This is the kind of introduction that immediately draws you into the novel’s ensuing narrative. Is it your usual mystery novel in the vein of Sherlock Holmes? Or just another “postmodern” treatise on the inaccessibility of the truth?
It is the year 1591 in Istanbul, Turkey. The Ottoman Empire Sultan Murat III commissions artists to make a book glorifying his life illustrated in the style of the western artists. Unfortunately, one of the artist becomes the corpse that greets us in the first chapter and it is up to the hero Black to uncover the mystery behind the murder, while also pursuing the heart of his master artisan uncle’s widowed daughter Shekure.
We jump from one narrator to another in each chapter from the protagonist Black, his love interest Shekure, his uncle Enishte, the other artists in the workshop, the anonymous murderer himself, a tree, a gold coin, and even a dog. What they reveal is limited by their own vantage point, thus it is only halfway through the narrative before we can make a good guess at the murderer’s identity.
Who among them killed our corpse whose sorrowful missive opened the novel? Our murderer whose identity would not be explicitly revealed until the climax taunts us readers: “Try to discover who I am from my choice of words and colors, as attentive people like yourselves might examine footprints to catch a thief.”
While the conventions of the 19th century classic mystery are coupled with contemporary metafictional playfulness, there is an altogether different agenda in the novel.
It is the discussion on art in West Asian Islamic states, that stands out as another function of the novel’s structure of presenting each chapter from a different perspective. For parallel to the build up of suspense are the lengthy and elaborate textual descriptions of visual images, of artworks. Here is the tree speaking:
I was meant to be among the pages of this illustrated 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 the 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.
Thus, alongside the simple interruption of the narrative by intricate verbal depictions of art, the novel also treats us with chapters wherein the subjects themselves – from the dog, the gold coin, the color red, to the horse – speaks to us in one of the many chapters where they serve as the narrator.
Not only is the discourse on art limited to such minutiae. There is also a rich and multifarious discussions on the philosophy of artistic production and the distinctions of artistic practices in medieval Islamic states and the Renaissance-era European fiefdoms.
The best thing about the novel is how the discussion adheres to the truism of how a society’s cultural artifice necessarily arises from the prevailing socio-political setup and ultimately the dominant mode of economic production. Here we are told how artists are tied to specific workshops and how their fortunes are dependent on fierce compeitition and the sponsorship of a lord under the feudal order of the West Asian Islamic states.
In Black’s own testimony, we are enlightened that art then did not simply arose out of the dedication of individual artists for artistic endeavor but is a product of material conditions:
What I did then was to use the money advanced by clients who’d placed manuscript orders in Istanbul to locate miniaturists and calligraphers who were frustrated by the wars and the presence of Ottoman soldiers, but hadn’t yet left for Kazvin or another Persian city, and it was these masters – complaining of poverty and neglect – whom I commissioned to inscribe, illustrate and bind pages of the manuscripts I would then send back to Istanbul.
The role of religion as a preserver of feudal relations is put to the fore as we are shown how it adapts artistic paintings, and thereby limits its scope, to some nonindividualistic spiritual paradigm. Art in this context primarily served religious ritual and the artists create exact reproduction of older artworks.. This tradition eschews the concept of style as a way to show off the abilities of the individual artist, which were beginning to emerge in West Europe, particularly in France and in Italy.
The individual style, which marked off a given work from that of others through the signature of the artist, was demonstrated primarily on the portraiture form which glorified the individual subject by painting him in terms of his earthly riches:
In all Venice, rich and influential men wanted their portraits painted as a symbol, a memento of their lives and a sign of their riches, power and influence – so they might always be there, standing before us, announcing their existence, nay, their individuality and distinction.
The emergence of an individual style in Europe was reflective of the beginning of the process of the atomization of the bourgeois class as a result of the inroads of commodity exchange under mercantilism. As Walter Benjamin points out, the Renaissance marked the decline of the ritualistic basis of art.
The more ancient pre-capitalist traditions based on a more collective life gradually make way for the isolated individual, and thus the rise of style and its more personal and individual content. For the artists of the Ottoman court, the paintings of the European Renaissance are viewed with awe or terror:
it isn’t enough that we be in awe of the authority and money of these men who commission the works, they also want us to know that simply existing in this world is a very special, very mysterious event. They’re attempting to terrify us with their unique faces, eyes, bearing and with their clothing whose every fold is defined by shadow.
It is the contradiction between adopting individual style or preserving the age-old traditions that the philosophical debates in the novel basically revolve and upon which the pulse that drives the narrative resides. A mystery, love story, historical novel, and treatise on art all in one book, Pamuk’s My Name is Red is a feast for the imagination. Highly recommended.