Posted by: koolwine | March 1, 2011

Turkey: My Name Is Red

The Sultan’s secret commission of a controversial illustrated book leads to murder.

Country Focus: Turkey (Türkiye in Turkish)

My Name Is Red
Orhan Pamuk
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.

Adam and Eve

“Portrait of a Man”, Tintoretto

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.




  1. Awesome…. simply awesome….. he should win a Nobel prize…. Oh… he DID!!!


    • As Pamuk himself said, “A great painter [writer] does not content himself by affecting us with his masterpieces; ultimately he succeeds in changing the landscape of our minds.”

      Am pleased it spoke to you!


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