Book Review: My Name Is Red

The American Bookcover of My Name Is Red

The American bookcover of My Name Is Red

It’s so unfortunate that your average Arab has based his facts and intuitions about Turkey through a portal of a TV show, that even though it captivated the hearts of many people, it also agitated many to the extent it won several fatwas from several Saudi and Gulf clerics, condemning the show upon the level of secularism that “exposes”. It’s so unfortunate that your average Arab has neglected the fact that despite that Turkey has one of the most successful democracies in the Muslim world (you might hold a different view in that regard), it still holds its Islamic identity dearly: from breathtaking, magnificent mosques that rival the beauty of churches, from the elevated level of spirituality of the influenced Sufi tradition that would put any sect to shame, and finally, to the superlative paintings and captivated poems that Turkey brought to the Islamic art and culture. Which brings me to the context of this great book that was brilliantly printed by the Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. This historical novel has brought a plethora of information to me through its fictional story that combines the elements of mystery, art and romantic novels.

My Name Is Red is set in 16th century of Istanbul where The Sultan has commissioned an illustrated book to demonstrate his power to the Venetian Doge. Because it will employ controversial aspects of the Frankish style, head illustrator Osman has been bypassed and the project given to Enishte, who coordinates miniaturists nicknamed Elegant, Stork, Olive, and Butterfly. But when Elegant suspects the orthodoxy of the final page and threatens to denounce the project to the followers of the conservative preacher Nusret Hoja, he is murdered by one of his colleagues. Enishte’s nephew Black, newly returned to Istanbul after twelve years absence, is asked to investigate. To complicate things, he revives an old passion for Enishte’s daughter Shekure, who is technically still married to a husband missing in battle, and who has other suitors. The brilliance of this novel comes to light with its distinctive narrative where each chapter is told by the perspective of those mentioned main characters, along with minor ones including the murderer and the subjects of the illustrated book (a dog, a gold coin, a horse, Satan, etc) given voice by a storyteller in a coffeehouse.

As a mystery and a reworked folktale, My Name Is Red has some surprising twists and turns, powering a readily engaging plot; as a historical novel, its setting in late sixteenth century Istanbul is convincingly detailed; and as a novel it offers some memorable characters and complex relationships. But what is most notable about My Name Is Red is the extent to which it is a novel about art, indeed almost a study of Islamic illustration. It contains descriptions of paintings, some of which verge on prose poems. It is full of stories about the great miniaturists and their history, going back to Bihzad and the Chinese influences brought by the Mongols. And it is riddled with discussions and debates about form and style, the relationship of art to morality and society and religion, the effects of Western ideas, the future of Ottoman illumination, and the significance of blindness. Even though Pamuk is a western modernist, his intention wasn’t to destroy his 16th-century artists, but instead, illuminates their world as no one has before. It brilliantly captured the past and present contradictions, but also its terrible, timeless beauty that makes it so perfect that it is deserved to be taught in history courses. Unfortunately, the length of book (500+ pages) and the rigid use of vocabulary and terminology are bound to turn off some people in seeing this novel to the end.  As much I want to recommend this book to everyone, it would be a futile effort to convince those who crave straightforward historical mysteries to pick up this book. Regardless of that, this book deserved the Nobel Prize that it won for, and a permanent place in your bookshelf.


12 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Sushi on August 11, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    “It’s so unfortunate that your average Arab has based his facts and intuitions about Turkey through a portal of a TV show”


    “It’s so unfortunate that your average Arab has neglected the fact that despite that Turkey has one of the most successful democracies in the Muslim world, it still holds its Islamic identity dearly”


    They might be democratic but they dont hold strong to Islamic identity unfortunately. Their government is torn between the Islamists & “3ilmaniyin”. The latter make it their duty to fight against all Islamic identities. Why else are women prohibited from wearing their head cover as soon as they enter universities?

    Putting all that aside though, no one can deny their rich history and beautiful architecture.

    The book sounds interesting 🙂


  2. Posted by Sushi on August 11, 2008 at 2:20 pm

    Note: I only say “unfortunately” because the Turkish Islamists are very liberal in their thinking compared to other countries and it is such a shame that its so-called democracy is self-contradictory in the light of its oppression towards certain people.

    Personally I dont view that as democracy unless all people from different backgrounds can exercise their rights.


  3. You brought good points Sushi, and I was waiting for someone to bring the veil prohibition controversy but as far I know, the veil has already been permitted to be worn by university attendances, thanks to the new Turkish president Abdullah Gul that many politicians described him as “moderate” and “Islamic”.

    Also, isn’t the Turkish women that helped in changing that law? I’ve seen thousands upon thousands protesting in the streets of Istanbul and Ankara, along with unveiled women who believed in the freedom of expression in terms of wearing religious clothes. When was the last time Arab women marched together to obtain their rights or changed a law that functions against them? I’m gonna say either rarely or never. And even if they did, their own country won’t be on their side. At least not likely.

    Of course, I’m not saying Turkey is a perfect country. In fact, if you murmured anything that remotely insults Turkey, you will be thrown in jail. Click HERE for some disturbing news. In fact, Orhan Pamuk himself has been criticizing Turkey regarding The Kurdish genocide and got in serious trouble, but yet he fought back and many people supported him. Click HERE for a detailed story.

    And finally, even if the country doesn’t hold an Islamic identity, Turkish people still proud of their religion and that’s the most important because God will judge your personal actions, not the country you live in. Nearly 95% of Turks mentioned that they believe in God and Islam apparently has been popular as ever. Click HERE. Still, I hold Turkey in high regard than any Arab country to be honest, and even if you oppose secularism, we can definitely learn a thing or two from them.


  4. Posted by sarah on August 11, 2008 at 5:02 pm

    meh those damn ottomans


  5. Actually, Turkey’s just disbanding ideal by ideal just so it can weasel its way into the EU, and one thing it has proven its willingness to discard is religion; the mosques are beautiful, but they are also an old remnant of what was a proud Muslim country.


  6. Posted by Sushi on August 12, 2008 at 4:49 am

    Angelo I have no doubt in my mind that it’s definately one of the most beautiful countries to visit and there are very strong scholars and women there from different spheres ready to make changes unlike other Arab/Muslim countries but I’m afraid its not enough to represent a country. Their government isn’t successful at what it does.

    I dont see any difference between Iran and Turkey to be honest- they’re just opposites of extreme polarities. I am not against liberalism or Islamism. I am just against oppression and both of them are good examples of that.

    I agree with Herolike. They are weaseling their way into the EU and that’s mainly the reason why they discard religious identity and frankly that’s what it takes to be fully recognized there Angelo.

    Nevertheless their literature, culture and architecture is beautiful and well worth being proud of 🙂


  7. Posted by Sushi on August 12, 2008 at 4:52 am

    BTW, all the sites you linked are quite informative and good sources. Thanks 🙂


  8. I saw that book on the shelf just yesterday, and wondered where I had seen the name and now I know – it was YOUR review! Jewaira was reading a book last summer – The Sultan’s Seal – which I read and loved, it’s an Ottoman Turkish Pasha detective, and I found the follow-up on the library shelf here, and I loved it, too.

    Now I am off to B&N, thanks to this enticing review, to find My Name is Red. Thank you, Angelo! 🙂


  9. I really wouldn’t want to get into a history lesson or anything like that, but damn that first paragraph took me by surprise. Turkey? Really? One of the most successful democracies in the middle east? You’re right I do hold a different view on that topic, but I’ll save that for myself. But it’s the second half that made me itch to comment on: the fact that it holds its Islamic identity so dearly. There’ a part, a much bigger, more powerful part of turkey, that wants to deconstruct the country apart and erase any traces of its Islamic heritage. Heritage is the key word actually; much of its art, mosques, literature is Islamic in origin, but its past from previous generations. That’s its culture. Nowadays, Turkey is trying to shed its Islamic face in turn of a more modern European visage. And yes, a ticket into the EU. Secularism, I think, was deemed appropriate to achieve that goal, but obviously that’s not faring well.


  10. Posted by Sushi on August 13, 2008 at 5:17 pm

    I think what Angelo meant was that there “are” people in the country who are trying to make things right (which is true although the government makes it impossible for them to make any real difference) nevertheless they exist.

    So off to another topic now – yallah =P


  11. i bought several art books for my kids and they loved it ~


  12. Aw, i thought this was a really good post. In concept I would like to put in writing like this additionally – spending time and actual efforts to manufacture a really good write-up


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