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Literature / My Name Is Red

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Weaving together art, history, religion, and a dozen other weighty concepts, My Name is Red is a byzantine and thought-provoking novel. The year is 1591, and from the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Sultan Murat III rules over the vast (and perhaps decaying) Ottoman Empire. It is a cold winter, snow falling around the slender minarets, the city seeming to turn in on itself for warmth. Around the world, new lands are being discovered, and the barbarous Franks grow ever more impetuous.

But this is of little concern to the miniaturists employed by the Sultan to illuminate books. Following the traditions of the Persian masters, they draw the world, hoping to capture the eternal and ineffable. Yet their lives are disrupted by the murder of one of their own, Elegant Effendi. Now, Kara, known as Black, a miniaturist who has returned from a long sojourn in Safavid Persia, must find the culprit before he and all other miniaturists have confessions tortured out from them.

My Name is Red is a fine example of a postmodern novel. No two subsequent chapters are told from the same viewpoint, though there are recurring narrators such as Black and his love, Shekure. The first chapter is even narrated by Elegant Effendi's corpse at the bottom of a well. Other chapters are related by inanimate objects, like a drawing of a tree or a gold coin. My Name is Red won the Dublin Literary Award for its author, Orhan Pamuk. Though not the easiest novel, the persistent reader will be rewarded with a fascinating and sometimes disturbing glimpse into Ottoman culture, values, and society.

This book provides examples of:

  • Art Evolution: Ottoman miniaturism is being gradually influenced by the more individualistic European (and to a lesser extent, Chinese) styles. This is quite disturbing to the miniaturists, whose art is deeply tied with Islam and Turkish identity. At the same time, much of the art style was already borrowed from Persia.
  • Author Avatar: Shekure has two sons, named Orhan and Shevket. The author of the novel is, of course, Orhan Pamuk, and he has an older brother named Shevket. Not only that, but Shekure was the name of Orhan Pamuk's mother. Shekure is one of the most important characters, but Orhan and Shevket don't get much attention.
  • Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: Nothing really hammers home the Deliberate Values Dissonance like, for example, an artist going into rapturous Purple Prose about the beautiful horse he is drawing and finishing by describing its rump as "like the gentle butt of a boy I was about to violate."
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: And how. Inanimate narrators, for example drawings, are quite aware of (and often comment on) their nature as drawings and further more as drawings that are narrating chapters in a book. Even the human characters are keenly aware that they have an audience.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Hasan finally shows up in person again at the end after affecting the plot from offscreen for some time, just in time to kill the fleeing Olive, whom he mistakes for one of Black's friends.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: It is routine for suspects and criminals to be tortured. Though none of the characters wish to undergo torture, they have no moral problem with it.
  • Damsel in Distress: A bit of this appears in Shekure's story, as she will be required to marry her husband's brother if she cannot find a husband.
  • Disability Superpower: A very interesting example. Miniaturists often go blind due to the long hours and the exacting nature of their work. Many of them end up welcoming blindness. A blind miniaturist draws from memory, which is vibrant and eternal. The milieu of cultural pessimism shows that things can only get worse for the world, more depraved and corrupt. The idealized memory is believed to be closer to how God sees the world.
  • Disappeared Dad: Shekure's husband never returned from a campaign against the Safavids. He is most likely dead, though this is never confirmed.
  • During the War: Much talk is made of the violent wars between Ottoman Turkey and Safavid Persia. Black is a veteran of this conflict, and Shekure's first husband probably died in it.
  • Dysfunction Junction: The miniaturists' workshop is full of very, very large egos that only work together in harmony because of their devotion to Master Osman. Add to that the fact that Master Osman used to beat them all severely (which they remember with gratitude) and that he had molested his favourite, Butterfly (which the others envied and Butterfly is nostalgic about). It doesn't take long after the murder for all hell to break loose.
  • The Emperor: Sultan Murat III is held in deep reverence, with characters reluctant to even look upon his visage.
  • Eye Scream: In one of the novel's most powerful scenes, Master Osman puts out his own eyes in order to embrace blindness and paint only from his idealized memory, and not from the decaying world around him. Later, Stork attempts to blind Olive, although it isn't clear if he actually would have gone blind.
  • Failure Is the Only Option: More or less how the characters see the world. Pessimism is so ingrained into the culture that history is portrayed as the course of inevitable decay. To some extent, the novel shows this as being a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the once-barbaric European states grow in power, and the Ottoman Empire becomes ever more sclerotic.
  • The Fundamentalist: Nusret Hoja, a conservative imam railing against coffee shops and other luxuries. His shadow hangs over every event in the book, but he never actually appears.
  • Happiness in Slavery: Perhaps more in submission than in slavery, but the idea is discussed several times, ranging from human submission to God, a subject's submission to a king, and an apprentice's submission to a master.
  • Intimate Healing: After Black is wounded by Olive, Shekure patches him up, and, well...
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Olive wrestles Black's dagger from him, wounds him in the shoulder, and makes a run for it. Before fleeing the city, he passes by the workshop one more time, where he runs into Hasan. Hasan recognizes the dagger, assumes he's one of Black's allies, and cuts his head off.
  • Let Me Tell You a Story: Olive, Stork, and Butterfly each tell Black three stories when he's first sent to question them regarding Elegant Effendi's murder.
    • As the book progresses, this gets taken up to eleven, with Butterfly telling Black a story while holding him down with a knife to his throat, just to discuss how difficult it would be to paint them in that position. Later, Stork tells a story while wrestling over a dagger.
  • Marry for Love: Averted, at least for Shekure. Society expects her to be married. Her motivations for eventually marrying Black seem motivated as much by pragmatism as by romance, and she does not always appear to love Black.
  • The Matchmaker: Esther, a Jewish woman, carries love letters between paramours.
  • Narrator All Along: in the final chapter narrated by Shekure, she reveals the whole book has been written by her son, Orhan, even going so far as to ask readers to forgive his biases.
  • Old Master: Some non-combat examples here, like Master Osman, the conservative head of the miniaturists' workshop. There are also references to real miniaturists, like Bizahd of Herat.
  • Posthumous Narration: Elegant Effendi, who narrates the first chapter after his dead body has been dropped down a well, and later Enishte Effendi who narrates his own funeral.
  • Race Fetish: A culture-wide one: it is traditional for the miniaturists to signify that a woman is very beautiful by depicting her as Chinese.
  • Raging Stiffie: Black gets one when he receives a note from Shekure - in front of her father, his uncle.
  • Sanity Slippage: Olive goes further and further off the deep end after the murder. However, he continues functioning intelligently and logically, and it is only clear that he has truly snapped when we find out what he did with Enishte Effendi's missing painting: he attempted to make a portrait of himself in the place intended for the Sultan in the middle of the picture (which within their cultural context, isn't merely arrogant and stupid; it's blasphemous in at least two separate ways and constitutes treason).
  • Serial Escalation: The Storyteller's stories begin with disagreement with Nusret Hoja's theology. As time goes on, they feature his stand-in's being buggered by the Devil himself, and then "I am a Woman" features crossdressing for sexual purposes, "Not-Husret-By-A-Long-Shot Effendi" having sex with multiple young boys, and says that he has terrible breath. Then Nusret Hoja's goons break in...
  • Serious Business: Miniaturism.
  • Shown Their Work: Pamuk knows his stuff, and isn't shy about showing it off.
  • Sophisticated as Hell: While the novel is very literary and many of the characters indulge in Purple Prose, words like "cock" will frequently show up if called for.
  • Story Within a Story: There are several, though the most important is that of Hüsrev and Shirin, an age-old Persian tale of doomed lovers.
  • Take That!: All of the Storyteller's stories in the coffeehouse are this towards Nusret Hoja.
  • Treasure Room: Sultan Murat III's private collection, which contains a staggering profusion of art and treasure from around the world. It's also dusty and neglected by its owner, who leaves a solitary dwarf to watch over it. When Black and Master Osman are allowed access to search for clues, it's a really big deal for them, especially Master Osman who cares more about seeing the treasures than in finding the murderer.
  • True Art Is Ancient: Many characters see older art as being superior, which is one of the reasons there is such a hostile reaction to European influences. invoked
  • True Art Is Incomprehensible: Significant portions of the book show how European art is based on fundamentally different assumptions than is Middle Eastern art. As an example, miniaturists strive to avoid individualistic styles (though they might insert key elements that would only be recognized by a chosen few), and the idea of an artist signing his work is arrogance at best, and blasphemy at worst. invoked