My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk is a whodunit mystery set in sixteenth-century Istanbul. Pamuk, the 2006 Nobel Prize Winner in Literature, takes us on a labyrinthine journey with interlocking threads of intrigue, love, rivalry, murder—all of which are interspersed with philosophical debates on the function of art and its intersection with religion.
The narrative progresses through the first-person point of view of multiple narrators, some of whom are startling. The opening chapter is in the voice of a corpse. The narrator has just been murdered and thrown down a well. He tells us he is an artist—a miniaturist who paints and embellishes books. Although we learn his murderer is a fellow miniaturist, the identity of the culprit is not revealed until the last pages of the novel. Other speakers include the murderer, fellow miniaturists, their mentors, a matchmaker, lovers, a storyteller, the image of a horse, a dog, a tree, a coin, the color red, death, and Satan. Some of the speakers address the reader directly as if extending an invitation to participate in the debate.
As the narrative gradually unfolds, we listen in on debates about the merits and demerits of eastern vs. western art; the nature of art; the perspective adopted by the artist; whether certain images are idolatrous/anti-Islamic; the artist’s anonymity vs. personal style and self-aggrandizement; artistic styles that have been passed down through the centuries; and vibrant descriptions of beautifully illuminated manuscripts alongside the stories they tell. Weaving in and out of these threads is a love story, a murder mystery that keeps one in suspense, and lamentations for a dying art form. To add complexity to an already complex tapestry, many of the speakers express themselves and answer questions on philosophy, religion, or art by telling stories derived from the cultural fabric of their society.
This is a great novel with a broad sweep that sheds light on a particular period in history while addressing some of the same philosophical, religious, and aesthetic issues we struggle with today. It is a challenging read but well worth the effort.