Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 28, 2018

My Name is Red (1998), by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Erdağ M. Göknar

My Name is Red is another book that indulges my interest in illuminated illustration.  I bought it ages ago when it won the IMPAC prize in 2003, but although Pamuk has since become one of those authors whose books I try always to read, until now I had never got round to reading the one that made him famous to ordinary readers in the Anglosphere.  It’s taken me ages to read it, because I as-good-as read it twice, backtracking over the chapters as I fitted the pieces of the puzzle together but also as I formed a more coherent understanding of the principles of Ottoman art in the 16th century.   (You can read a succinct summary about it here but I made my discoveries from reading the novel).

The novel is a murder mystery in the style of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose or Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost but it’s also a love story and a meditation on a transitional period in Ottoman art.  At the same time it also explores one of Pamuk’s central preoccupations: the contest between modernity and tradition; and between the West and Islam.  He does this through an exploration of the Islamic art of miniatures, setting his novel among master miniaturists under the leadership of Master Osman, a character based on the real life Nakkaş Osman, the chief miniaturist of the Ottoman region in the 16th century.

Musicians and dancers from the Ottoman empire in the Surname-I Hümayun (Imperial Festival Book) an album that commemorated celebrations in the Ottoman Empire in pictorial and textual detail (Wikipedia Commons)

When I visited the Alhambra in Granada, I wasn’t all that excited about Islamic art because representation of the human form was not allowed and my interest waned after a few chambers of what looked to me like endless repetitions.  But actually Ottoman art covered a vast area, and it was influenced by Persian and  Chinese art, as well as the Franks and the Venetians with whom the Ottomans were consorting as they conquered bits and pieces of Europe.  There was also a significant difference between public art, and the exquisite private artworks commissioned by successive Sultans who liked, as rulers do, to acquire self-aggrandising artworks that feature their importance.  So it’s not at all surprising that when the Sultan of Pamuk’s novel caught up with the idea of Renaissance portraiture from Genoa and Venice, he liked the idea of a portrait, accompanied by items significant in his life as a demonstration of his power and majesty.

However, it had to be kept secret, even from his coterie of miniaturists in the atelier that illustrated his artworks.  Because there were fundamental incompatibilities between Ottoman art and European art, which was judged impure and blasphemous.  The novel features a fundamentalist Hoja (rather like Savanarola). He denounces such wickedness as drinking coffee and storytelling that’s not from the Koran, and he has a bunch of followers a bit like Hitler’s Brownshirts so everyone involved in the Sultan’s book has to be very discreet.

This image above, of musicians and dancers entertaining the crowds, (found in the Surname of 1720) shows the problem: all the faces look exactly the same except for a moustache here and there;  it doesn’t conform to our ideas about perspective because all the people are the same size; and it’s not signed.  Artworks, as the murderer explains to us, are supposed to be copies of what was done by the old masters of Shiraz and Herat, who drew the images as Allah would have envisaged and desired.  The picture is supposed to be seen from his viewpoint i.e. up on high. Individuals in the picture should not compete for importance, and the painter should not attempt to develop an individual style or expect recognition (i.e. or sign their work) because that is self-aggrandisement.  And pictures are also not supposed to be complete (as a Western painting is) without an accompanying story.

The un-named murderer is only one of many narrators.  There is also the hero Black recalled from exile to help with the Sultan’s secret book; the unattainable lady he loves, who’s called Shekura; the corpse, who turns out to be Elegant Effendi;  and Shekura’s father, protecting her from Hasan, her disagreeable brother-in-law who wants to marry her since her husband hasn’t come back from the war.  Then there are the artists:  Master Osman and his acolytes Olive, Butterfly and Stork, all of whom are suspected of the murder because they (a) had reason to be jealous of Elegant Effendi and (b) because they have conflicting views about the morality of working on the Sultan’s book. There is Esther, a Jewish go-between, playing Hasan and Black off against each other; and there are also impersonal narrators who include a dog; a horse, a gold coin; a couple of dervishes, Death, and Satan.  It might seem confusing, but the novel is tidily chronological and this collection of narrators only adds to the fun in trying to work out who the murderer is.  Because of course, he’s not the only one who’s an unreliable narrator.

It is a long book at 503 pages, but I loved it.  I was fascinated by the musings of Black, reconciling his faith with ‘modern’ artistic trends.  I liked the cleverness of the way the book is constructed in what I understand to be classical storytelling form.  (I learned about this storytelling technique from The Storyteller of Marrakesh by Joydeep Roy Bhattacharya). I admired Pamuk’s homage to the anonymous painters who suffered so grievously for their art in this period, and enjoyed learning about their style and why those lovely paintings are the way they are.  I was also pleased with myself when I recognised the patterns of three and realised that there were going to be three murders, and even more pleased with myself when I worked out whodunnit some pages before The Big Reveal!

I’ve read some great books this year, but this might well be one of the best.

Author: Orhan Pamuk
Title: My Name is Red
Translated by Erdağ M. Göknar
Publisher: Faber & Faber, 2001, first published 1998
ISBN: 9780571212248
Source: personal library, purchased from Readings $21.00

Available from Fishpond: My Name Is Red (They had second-hand copies too, the day I looked).


  1. Oh dear, this is one of my DNF books! I recently went through them and have moved about half of them on (there were 15 or less) but this is one I’ve kept because I feel that the time I tried to read it was just one of those mismatches of time and book. I’ve read two other Pamuks and have liked them a lot.

    Strangely, I couldn’t get enough of the art at the Alhambra. I loved the abstract patterning and kept photographing and photographing it every corner I turned, because there were always variations in colour, form, arrangement. It’s probably related to me interest in patchwork.


    • AH well, I’m glad you didn’t throw it out. It just needs the right time, and it does need to be read continuously in order to keep track of things.
      It was the gardens at the Alhambra that I loved. I almost wore out the camera!


      • Yes, the garden was great too. Beautiful place.

        One day I’ll try to get to Red.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This one has been on my tbr for way too long. I really should pull the trigger and read it


    • I’d love to read your review of it. It is just such a brilliant book and I know you’d find all sorts of interesting aspects to comment on:)


  3. Yes, it’s a good choice…


  4. I enjoyed this book when I read it but, as my reading has evolved I have often wondered if I would appreciate it even more now.


    • I know what you mean. It tempts me to re-read An Instance of the Fingerpost and The Name of the Rose because I know I would understand much more now than when I read them all those years ago.
      Have you settled into your new house now?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I had two large truckloads of junk and good items I no longer needed hauled away today at a considerable expense. Then we have tonight and tomorrow to finish hauling stuff to the new place, taking the chemicals/paints, etc to the firehall (a good carload there), all of the paper recycling and then clean. I am exhausted beyond tears and still overwhelmed by the clutter, much of which is paper and plastics recycling.


        • Hang in there. This time next month the worst of it will be over, you will know where your light switches are without thinking, and you can start to enjoy having fewer domestic responsibilities in the house and garden:)


  5. I enjoyed The Name of the Rose, back when it was supposed to be difficult. So I’d probably like this one too, though with real as opposed to audio books I do have problems with remembering where I’m up to. Interesting your spell checker preferred Allan to Allah.


    • *Smacks forehead* I don’t think I can blame spellcheck for that one.. I’m overdue for an eye checkup and I can’t detect small differences like n and h.


  6. […] (as you can see from my adventures with Finnegans Wake), I wouldn’t have missed reading Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red for the world,  or any of Patrick White’s books, or the sly cunning of The Weaver Fish by […]


  7. […] interest in illuminated illustration and it’s a cunningly designed murder mystery as well.  In my review I likened it to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose or Iain Pears’ An Instance of the […]


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