Country Focus: Turkey (Türkiye in Turkish)
My Name Is Red
Translated by Erdağ M. Göknar
Originally published as Benim Adım Kırmızı in Istanbul, 1998.
My edition: Vintage International, 2001. 413 pgs.
Acclaim: A New York Times Notable Book; Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006
In 1591, a man by the name of Black returns to Istanbul after a twelve year absence to help his Enishte (uncle) with a secret project commissioned by the Sultan: the creation of an illustrated book so magnificent that it would fill the Venetians with awe and inspire a friendship between East and West. Or at least that is Black’s excuse to return to the city. He is far more interested in rekindling his romance with Shekure, his Enishte’s daughter, than in any book and immediately starts sending her messages via a matchmaker. He is foiled by bad timing; his Enishte’s gilder has just recently been murdered and Black is asked to find out which of his Enishte’s three master “miniaturists” (illustrators) – who go by the nicknames “Olive”, “Butterfly” and “Stork” – is the culprit.
Although they would have needed to pull a Buck Rogers to hear Marshall McLuhan proclaim “the medium is the message”, the characters in My Name Is Red lived this catch phrase; books and the illustrations within are demonstrations of power. The materials used to decorate them were scarce and expensive, and the artistic talent of the miniaturists – who were so devoted to their craft that they coveted the blindness that ultimately befell them for their detailed work – was equally prized. Pamuk describes the quest for biblio-perfection when he writes of the Sultan Ibrahim Mirza, who
“had a devoted librarian. This man would travel on horseback all the way to Shiraz where the best master gilders lived; then he’d take a couple pages to Isfahan seeking the most elegant calligraphers of Nestalik script; afterward he’d cross great mountains till he’d made it all the way to Bukhara where he’d arrange the picture’s composition and have the figures drawn by the great master painter who worked under the Uzbek Khan; next he’d go down to Herat to commission one of its half-blind old masters to paint from memory the sinuous curves of plants and leaves; visiting another calligrapher in Herat, he’d direct him to inscribe, in gold Rika script, the sign above a door within the picture; finally, he’d be off again to the south, to Kain, where displaying the half-page he had finished during his six months of traveling, he’d receive the praises of Sultan Ibrahim Mirza.”
One of my hopes heading into this WorldLitUp project was that the international readings would present me with new ways of looking at the world. My Name Is Red made me think of art in a different light. The 16th century Ottomans believed that art and religion were closely linked. Illustrations were highly stylized in order to depict the world as God sees it; blind miniaturists could keep working because the muscles in their hands had memorized the movements necessary to draw, for example, a horse (which should always be started from the left front hoof) .
The paintings of the Venetians were a revelation to Ottoman miniaturists for two main reasons: 1) the “infidel” artists dared to portray their subjects realistically; and 2) the Europeans were so audacious that they made themselves the subjects of their paintings (they indulged in portraiture). The Ottomans took offense at realism because they believed that the Venetian painters were putting themselves on par with God, the Creator. Portraiture shocked the Ottomans because they believed that illustrations without context would inspire idolatry; Ottoman miniaturists only depicted scenes from stories or history.
The differences between the two late 16th-century painting styles are indisputable. On the left is a Ottoman illustration of Adam and Eve from the 1583 manuscript Zubdat al-Tawarikh. The portrait on the right was painted in 1560 by Tintoretto, a Venetian.
Pamuk is extraordinarily gracious in describing the waning of his nation’s art and leaves little doubt that the Ottoman style, rife with meaning and subtlety, will eventually yield to European “verisimilitude”. His characters are awed by the obvious skill of the Europeans and their enormous egos are seduced by the individualism inherent in western culture. You know there’s not much hope for the miniaturists when the novel is book-ended by Ottomans proclaiming their desires for portraits.
A treatise on art disguised as a murder mystery, My Name Is Red is as detailed and complex as one of the minaturist’s “splendid pictures”. Pamuk uses twenty points of view (including a dead man, the color red, and eight different illustrations) in 59 chapters to lead the reader through Ottoman Istanbul. My Name Is Red is also thick with anecdotes, stories and philosophical musings that highlight the differences between the Europeans and Ottomans, but he ultimately celebrates both cultures.
“In the realm of book arts, whenever a masterpiece is made, whenever a splendid picture makes my eyes water out of joy and causes a chill to run down my spine, I can be certain of the following: Two styles heretofore never brought together have come together to create something new and wondrous.”
In my book (or what Turkey means to me and maybe you, too)
Don’t be fooled – Turkeys are not native to Turkey. In fact, the country’s name has nothing to do with the bird at all. The Türk in Türkiye means “strong” and the suffix –iye can mean either “owner”, “related to” or “land of”. If you were an American ex-patriot living in Turkey and wanted to host Thanksgiving dinner, you’d roast and stuff a hindi (the Turkish word for the turkey bird).
“Otur ve sus!”*
When my family lived in Germany, I had to ride the bus from our German neighborhood to my school on the American military base. The bus driver was a dark-complected guy who didn’t speak very good English. I remember Mom saying he was Turkish. As a freakishly shy elementary schooler, I crossed my fingers that a friendly American lady would replace the grumpy Turkish guy, but I was doomed – Turks were (and still are, at 3.5 million) the largest immigrant group in Germany and probably way more willing to drive school buses than Army wives.
*Sit down and shut up (in Turkish)
It’s a cathedral…it’s a mosque…it’s a museum!
I was stunned when my art history professor flashed a slide of the Hagia Sophia on the wall during class. Whoa! I didn’t even think Turkey had buildings, much less architecture worthy of memorization! Built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in 537, the Hagia Sophia (which means “Holy Wisdom”) was the largest cathedral in the world until the Ottomans conquered Istanbul* in 1453 and Sultan Mehmed II transformed it into a mosque. The building’s function changed again in 1931, when the first President of Turkey turned it into a museum.
*then called Constantinople