June 4, 2020

Book Review: My name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

When I read on the back flap of the book that My Name is Red is nothing like the Western thriller, I couldn’t quite conjure an ‘Eastern’ thriller in my imagination. Orhan Pamuk defined it for us. A simple transposition of décor, cultural setting, subject matter or a surgical appropriation of names and locale doesn’t quite pull off the transition from an Occidental to an Oriental work. Its ‘Eastern-ness’ emanates from its conception by an Eastern mind within the framework of cultural, emotional issues and sensitivities apprehensible by the Eastern mind. The locale, the geography, the soul of the region is kneaded into the very fibre of the story so that people, thoughts and place become a sacred Trinity.

The story is set in the 16th century Ottoman Empire. The Sultan has commissioned an illuminated manuscript celebrating his reign, a highly confidential and honorable work. Two of the miniaturists working on the project are mysteriously murdered. The plot revolves around the resolution to this mystery by Black, a young ambassador whose Uncle was among the two people murdered. Various hypotheses and alternating perspectives build up towards the final denouement. We are heralded into the world of miniature art where we meet the specialists of the craft. It’s a delightful world, a richly imaginative chapter in human history, alive with characters and passions unfamiliar to us children of technology.

In a perfective stroke, the story, while talking of oriental tapestries and manuscripts, seems to become one itself. Like Ottoman tapestries, not a single corner is left vacant. We are quite at the other extreme of ‘less is more’, more towards ‘more is necessary’. The canvas of Pamuk is abundant, copiously populated, richly illustrated with no object relegated carelessly into the background. Every little tree, every little beast is rendered with minute care, resulting in a very opulent narrative.

Predominantly, the narrative character has two strains – intrigue with an element of fantasy. In this universe, we have some very human elements at play, at times, there’s a Machiavellian fascination with motives and tactics. Stylistically, the ‘aesthetics’ of crime are very reminiscent of Poe. We see this is the care for detail and introspection with which a murderer describes his crime, the characteristic way in which his personality splits into the pre-crime and post-crime persona, so that the description of the act itself is distant and objective, as if coming from a third person. There is the obsessive rationalizing of the crime and that Raven-ish voice, part scientist with its cold, absolute logic, part lunatic in its morbid frenzy. We have the signature moral suspension, in which the only concern for the murderer are the ‘practicalities’ of execution.

However, behind this very human drama, one has the sense of looming magic. In this universe, inanimate things come to life; dogs mourn discrimination, trees search for life-purpose and horses are guilty of pride. One is tempted to call it a fable but it lacks the two-dimensionality of a fable, the black and white clarity of good and evil. Its vision is grey, the grey of human experience, the duplicity, the twilight zone of morality. The intrigue is mingled with deep passions, great talents and attains a measure of sublimity so that the author’s contrivance and the element of manipulation take a back seat while the force and conviction of the human element rise to the forefront.

As historical fiction, it opens doors. It excites one’s curiosity about the Ottoman age and the art of miniature painting. Thanks to My name is Red, I found myself reading books that no history teacher could ever have coaxed me into reading. And that, in itself, is no mean feat. Lay your hands on this gem if you’re up for a truly energizing literary experience, not if you have a few hours to kill. There’s nothing half-way or remotely casual about Orhan Pamuk. It’s all serious and it’s all good.


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