The deadly art of portraits
In Turkey's bestselling novel, the hues of East and West blend violently
"There are moments in all our lives when we realize, even as we experience them, that we are living through events we will never forget, even long afterward."
These words from the bestselling Turkish novel "My Name Is Red," by Orhan Pamuk, ring as true in the aftermath of Sept. 11 as in the year 1591, in which the novel is set.
While "My Name Is Red" has a many-layered plot - including a murder mystery and a love story - its thematic value is threefold: to provide a glimpse into an Islamic society, to understand the global tensions that exist when one empire waxes while another wanes, and to point out the cyclical nature of history.
In this case, the waning empire is the great Ottoman, which lasted 700 years until the early 20th century and, at its peak, encompassed Asia Minor, North Africa, and parts of Hungary and southern Russia up to the gates of Vienna.
The story takes place in Istanbul during the early years of the empire's decline. A powerful sultan has commissioned his miniaturists to create an illuminated work celebrating his royal self and his extensive dominion.
The artists have been asked to break with tradition and work in the new European style. But this is considered an affront to Islam because of its use of portraiture. As a result, the sultan's master gilder is murdered. Is this a sign of an impending clash with European values? In such a climate, the victim's widow notes correctly, "It's easy to lose sight of right and wrong."
In addition to addressing the artistic, cultural, and political differences between the Ottomans and the Venetians, Pamuk also distinguishes between Turkish, Arab, Persian, and Chinese thought, philosophy, and art. This distinction among Muslims and other peoples of the Middle East is particularly useful in the aftermath of Sept. 11, when the overriding tendency is to lump all Middle Easterners together.
The book's backdrop of waxing and waning empires serves as a reminder that global upheavals have been common throughout time, that war and peace operate in cycles, and that history
can serve as an anchor and a beacon in a period of uncertainty.
As the master painter of the novel says, "Shahs with a weakness for gold and power always forget: The world's beauty belongs to Allah."
The pace of "My Name is Red" is the rhythm of Turkey itself. Just like fishermen in a timeless Turkish village setting off in their boats to cast their nets, the novel begins slowly, but subtly catches the reader in an ensnaring, rich tale.
Influenced by Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino, Pamuk has created a whodunit similar in plot to Eco's "The Name of the Rose."
The twist is that the story unfolds as each chapter is narrated by a different character or object - the murder victim, the murderer, the lovers, the town gossip, a dog, the color red - with a style reminiscent of Calvino's "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler."
The significance of "My Name is Red" is obvious in Turkey, where the book has enjoyed the largest print run in the country's history.
Despite being condemned by both the secular left and the fundamentalist right, Pamuk is by far the most popular writer of the country that straddles the Middle East and Europe.
In a recent anthology for the Council of Europe, the author wrote:
"I have spent my life in Istanbul, on the European shore, in the houses looking towards the Asian shore. Living by the water with a view of the opposite shore ceaselessly reminded me of my place in the world. Then one day a bridge connecting the two shores of the Bosporus was built. When I went up on the bridge and surveyed the landscape, I realized it was still better and still more lovely to see the two shores at once. I felt that a bridge between two shores was the best thing to be. Speaking to each shore without completely belonging to either; this unveiled the finest scenery of all."
It is precisely that blending that makes his work so appealing.
Char Simons has lived in Turkey and now teaches nonfiction writing at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.