In My Name Is Red, Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk gives readers a murder mystery, a romance, historical fiction, and a novel of ideas. It is set in Istanbul in 1591, when the Ottoman Empire was beginning to be threatened by Western values. A court artist is murdered at the start; he was working on a secret book for the sultan. The project master will also be dead before the end. One of the three miniaturists hired to work on the book is the likely killer.
None of the artists was told how his part will fit into the whole because the book will violate Islamic tradition. So, did one of them kill because he figured out he was committing heresy? The detective aspect of the story requires that Pamuk expound on the nature of art in Ottoman society and contrast it with the art that was coming out of Venice at the time. Although beautiful and masterful, Islamic miniaturist art was decorative and impersonal, in contrast with Western portraiture. The Ottomans thought that portraying people or objects for their own sake made icons of them, and that the use of perspective did not render people and things according to their importance in Allah’s mind.
The story is advanced by different narrators, one per chapter. Some are human, some things (including the color red of the title). Black, the nephew of the murdered project head, is the main character, trying to both identify the killer and to woo his cousin, an elusive beauty with a missing husband.
Pamuk, one of Turkey’s most important writers, received the 2006 Nobel Prize in literature. East-west tensions are his frequent theme, and for Western readers his books have opened windows into ideas and customs foreign to their imagination.
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