My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

My Name is Red coverIt’s not everyday one reads a mystery written by a winner of the Nobel Price in Literature. It sort of adds weight to the book. As in, this is an important book, people all over the world think it’s great literature, you better like it. I admit that when I first started, I gave up about ten chapters in. I couldn’t follow the story and there just seemed to be too many words.

Since my book group selected it, I felt a compunction to try again. The second time around turned out to be better. I approached the book without as much baggage and made it to the end. I’m still not sure if I liked it or not. In short, the story, set in 16th century Istanbul, is about the murder of Elegant Effendi, a miniaturist working on a secret book for the Sultan. He dies in the first chapter and the job a finding the killer falls to Black, another miniaturist and binder who’s just returned from twelve years of exile. Mind you, he’s not really interested in being a sleuth, all he wants is marry Shekure, the daughter of Enishte Effendi, his maternal uncle.

As the story unfolds, there are more and more complications. We learn all about miniature painters whose job it is to decorate the margins of books with detailed depictions of the story told in the book. Eventually, Enishte Effedi is killed as well and the last part of the book is all about locating the killer among one of three famous miniaturist who’ve worked on the secret book.

Along the way, we learn all about the struggles of tradition against the coming modernity. The master miniaturist continues to hold on to the traditions, where the role of the painter is to copy as faithfully as possible the paintings of the old masters. Enishte Effendi, on the other hand has been to Venice and has seen the paintings of the “Frankish” painters, who just began exploring perspective and the vanishing point. The traditionalists find those techniques in violation of the Quran, because things in the distance are depicted smaller than those nearby. Add a cleric who’s riling people up over the transgressions of modernity and you have a mystery.

What I really liked about the book was the manner in which Pamuk switched POVs. There are the normal changes between the characters, but there is also narration from the POV of a painting of a dog, a fake gold coin and the color red. Those were amazing twists in the story. I didn’t like the repetitious nature of the story. By the time I finished the book, I was tired of hearing anything more about the miniatures or how two mystical lovers have been depicted in those paintings for the past centuries. A little of Elmore Leonard’s advice on using descriptions sparingly might have helped.

What struck me most was how Ottoman society seemed to be stuck in time. Unable to move confidently into a new future because the past, or what people claim to be the past, lingers like an oppressive cloud. I do wonder if Pamuk wanted to point to current parallels.

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