It's a land where imitation is sacred and individuality profane, a land where portraiture and perspective are as much the tools of Satan as of the European Frankish masters, where art transcends the skill and dexterity of the artist and merges into Allah himself, where memory is the artist's greatest gift and where every miniaturist percieves blindness as the ultimate recognition by the Almighty. It's sixteenth century Istanbul with the Ottoman empire at its zenith. A city full of darkness and light, love and intrigue and masters and apprentices.
Orhan Pamuk's tour de force, My Name Is Red (MNIR) is unlike any novel I have come across. Its a difficult read by all accounts and slow and laborious at times. But what it does very successfully is transport you to a completely different space and time, when Sultans reigned supreme and art flourished under the wings of religion. MNIR is steeped in Islam and the art of miniature painting. Here every character has a voice of his own. From the Head Illuminator Master Osman to his three Master Miniaturists: Olive, Stork and Butterfly, from the beautiful Shekure to her lover and husband Black, from the Jewess clothier and letter carrier Esther to Enishte Effendi, the father of the lovely Shekure and from the dog to the gold coin, every character speaks.
Pamuk uses a first person to narrate different chapters through his characters which has an even deeper meaning when we realise that he is trying to look at the world through individual eyes, the eyes of people and not through the eyes of an outsider. This is analogous to the major conflict between the Islamic tradition of painting sans perspective which tries to depict everything as Allah might have seen and not through individual eyes as done by the European Masters.
The book is replete with depictions of famous miniatures and epics like Husrev & Shirin, Rustem & Sohrab to name a few and the endless descriptions of the paintings, from the horses to the clouds, from the lovely hands and necks of maidens to the trees, do at times get exhausting to read. There's ample history though, to arise the curiosity of anybody interested in knowing the birth and lifetime of miniature painting, the seats of learning like Herat, Tabriz and Shiraz, the different workshops with different styles, the Chinese and Mongol influence and even references of Akbar and Hindustan.
A unique concept which I think is worth mentioning is the way miniaturists looked at the process of making illustrations during those times. It's said in the novel that painting is all about memory. Even when we look at something and draw, for a split second as our eyes finish their job and let the hands take over, its our memory which holds the image we are about to depict. So in this light what can be the ultimate goal of a miniaturist. To paint, to illustrate without the gift of vision, from memory alone. And this is what every artist in those times strived to achieve. Making a particular horse thousands of times till the hand could make it from memory alone. This concept encouraged imitation, making images as the old masters used to without any individuality of one's own, without a signature. For its the art and not the artist that matters. All this was particularly in line with Islam which forbade individuality at any level and so when old masters went blind after working for decades under the dim light of oil lamps, it was said to be a gift from Allah himself, a gift which freed a man from the ugly sights that humans are capable of seeing and enabled one to see the world as the Almighty does, beautiful and heavenly.
In short the story revolves around the secret book of paintings that the Sultan has commissioned to be made by the best miniaturists and gilders of Istanbul. A book to depict the Sultan's and the Ottoman Empire's grandeur and power to the Venetains, to be made in secret using the styles of the European Frankish Masters who look at the world as seen from a window and not as Allah would see it, from an exalted plane. And this in sixteenth century Istanbul amounts to blasphemy, a disregard of Islam which prohibits such styles and depictions. It is during the making of this book that differences arise amongst the artists which leads to two murders.
The story itself is composed of many levels. At one level MNIR is a murder mystery, the clues of which lie only in the paintings of the secret book. At another it is a love story between Black and Shekure, the daughter of one of the victims and Black's struggle to win the love of his beloved and her two sons, Shevket and Orhan, by finding the murderer. And of course it's a brilliant commentary on art, religion and society and their effects on the lives of people, their faiths and beliefs, their customs and traditions.
My Name Is Red is a unique book in all accounts. True there are parts of it which are very difficult to comprehend given my limited knowledge of miniature paintings, Ottoman Empire, Istanbul and Islam. Yet these very things combined with Pamuk's style and presentation make it as engrossing and rewarding read as any I have come across.