The Sultan has commissioned a cadre of the most acclaimed artists in the land to create a great book celebrating the glories of his realm. Their task: to illuminate the work in the European style. But because figurative art can be deemed an affront to Islam, this commission is a dangerous proposition indeed. The ruling elite therefore mustn’t know the full scope or nature of the project, and panic erupts when one of the chosen miniaturists disappears. The only clue to the mystery–or crime? –lies in the half-finished illuminations themselves. Part fantasy and part philosophical puzzle, My Name is Red is a kaleidoscopic journey to the intersection of art, religion, love, sex and power.
Translated from the Turkish by Erda M Göknar
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I Am a Corpse
I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well. Although I drew my last breath long ago and my heart has stopped beating, no one, apart from that vile murderer, knows what's happened to me. As for that wretch, he felt for my pulse and listened for my breath to be sure I was dead, then kicked me in the midriff, carried me to the edge of the well, raised me up and dropped me below. As I fell, my head, which he had smashed with a stone, broke apart; my face, my forehead and cheeks, were crushed; my bones shattered, and my mouth filled with blood.
For nearly four days I have been missing: My wife and children must be searching for me; my daughter, spent from crying, must be staring fretfully at the courtyard gate. Yes, I know they're all at the window, hoping for my return.
But, are they truly waiting? I can't even be sure of that. Maybe they've gotten used to my absence-how dismal! For here, on the other side, one gets the feeling that one's former life persists. Before my birth there was infinite time, and after my death, inexhaustible time. I never thought of it before: I'd been living luminously between two eternities of darkness.
I was happy; I realize now that I'd been happy. I made the best illuminations in Our Sultan's workshop; no one could rival my mastery. Through the work I did privately, I earned nine hundred silver coins a month, which, naturally, only makes all this even harder to bear.
I was responsible for painting and embellishing books. I illuminated the edges of pages, coloring their borders with the most lifelike designs of leaves, branches, roses, flowers and birds. I painted scalloped Chinese-style clouds, clusters of overlapping vines and forests of color that hid gazelles, galleys, sultans, trees, palaces, horses and hunters. In my youth, I would decorate a plate, or the back of a mirror, or a chest, or at times, the ceiling of a mansion or of a Bosphorus manor, or even, a wooden spoon. In later years, however, I applied myself only to manuscript pages because Our Sultan paid well for them. I can't say it seems insignificant now. You know the value of money even when you're dead.
After hearing the miracle of my voice, you might think, "Who cares what you earned when you were alive? Tell us what you can see. Is there life after death? Where's your soul? What about Heaven and Hell? What is death like? Are you in pain?" You're right, people are extremely curious about the Afterlife. Maybe you've heard the story of the man who was so driven by this curiosity that he roamed among soldiers in battlefields. He sought a man who had died and returned to life amid the wounded struggling for their lives in pools of blood, a soldier who could tell him about the secrets of the Otherworld. But one of Tamerlane's warriors, taking the seeker for one of the enemy, cleared him in half with a smooth stroke of his scimitar, causing him to conclude that in the Hereafter man is split in two.
Nonsense! Quite the opposite, I'd even allege that souls divided in life merge in the Hereafter. Contrary to the claims of sinful infidels who have fallen under the sway of the Devil, there is indeed another world, thank God, and the proof is that I am speaking to you from here. I've died, but as you can plainly tell, I haven't ceased to be. Granted, I must confess, I haven't encountered the rivers flowing beside the silver and gold kiosks of Heaven, the broad-leaved trees bearing plump fruit and the beautiful virgins mentioned in the Glorious Koran-though I do very well recall how often and enthusiastically I made pictures of those wide-eyed houris described in the chapter "That Which Is Coming." Nor is there a trace of those rivers of milk, wine, fresh water and honey described with such flourish, not in the Koran, but by visionary dreamers like Ibn Arabi. But I have no intention of tempting the faith of those who live rightly through their hopes and visions of the Otherworld, so let me declare that all I've seen relates specifically to my own very personal circumstances. Any believer with even a little knowledge of life after death would know that a malcontent in my state would be hard-pressed to see the rivers of Heaven.
In short, I, who am known as Master Elegant Effendi, am dead, but have not been interred, therefore my soul has not completely left my body. This extraordinary situation, although naturally my case is not the first, has inflicted a horrible suffering upon the immortal part of me. Though I cannot feel my crushed skull or my decomposing body covered in wounds, full of broken bones and partially submerged in ice-cold water, I do feel the deep torment of my soul struggling desperately to escape its mortal coil. It's as if the whole world, along with my body, were contracting into a bolus of anguish.
I can only compare this contraction to the surprising sense of release I felt during the unequaled moment of my death. Yes, I instantly understood that that wretch wanted to kill me when he unexpectedly struck me with a stone and cracked my skull, but I didn't believe he'd be able to follow through. I suddenly realized I was a hopeful man, something I hadn't been aware of while living my life in the shadows between workshop and household. I clung passionately to life with my nails, my fingers and my teeth, which I sank into his skin. I won't bore you with the painful details of the subsequent blows I received.
When in the course of this agony I knew I would die, an incredible feeling of relief filled me. I felt this relief during the moment of departure; my arrival to this side was soothing, like the dream of seeing oneself asleep. The snow- and mud-covered shoes of my murderer were the last things I noticed. I closed my eyes as if I were going to sleep, and I gently passed over.
My present complaint isn't that my teeth have fallen like nuts into my bloody mouth, or even that my face has been maimed beyond recognition, or that I've been abandoned in the depths of a well-it's that everyone assumes I'm still alive. My troubled soul is anguished that my family and intimates, who, yes, think of me often, imagine me engaged in some trivial business somewhere in Istanbul, or even chasing after another woman. Enough! Find my body without delay, pray for me and have me buried. Above all, find my murderer! For even if you bury me in the most magnificent of tombs, so long as that wretch remains free, I'll writhe restlessly in my grave, waiting, infecting you all with faithlessness. Find that son-of-a-whore murderer and I'll tell you in detail just what I see in the Afterlife-but know this, when he's caught, he must be tortured by slowly splintering eight or ten of his bones, preferably his ribs with a vise, before piercing his scalp with those skewers made especially for the task by torturers, and plucking out his disgusting, oily hair, strand by strand, so he shrieks each time.
Who is this murderer who vexes me so? Why has he killed me in this surprising way? Be curious and mindful of such matters. You say the world is full of base and worthless criminals? Perhaps this one did it, perhaps that one? In that case let me caution you: My death conceals an appalling conspiracy against our religion, our traditions and the way we see the world. Open your eyes, discover why the enemies of the life in which you believe, of the life you're living, and of Islam, have destroyed me. Learn why one day they might do the same to you. One by one, everything predicted by the great preacher Nusret Hoja of Erzurum, to whom I've tearfully listened, is coming to pass. Let me say also that if the situation into which we've fallen were described in a book, even the most expert of miniaturists could never hope to illustrate it. As with the Koran-God forbid I'm misunderstood-the staggering power of such a book arises from the impossibility of its being depicted. I doubt you've comprehended this fact.
Listen to me. When I was an apprentice, I too feared and thus ignored the underlying truths and the voices from beyond. I'd joke about such matters. But I've ended up in the depths of this deplorable well! It could happen to you, be wary. Now, I've nothing left to do but hope for thorough decay, so they can find me by tracing my stench. I've nothing to do but hope-and imagine the torture that some benevolent man will inflict upon that wretched murderer once he's been caught.
Reading Group Guide
1. Have Pamuk’s books changed your perceptions of Turkey? What insights do they offer into the country’s history and place in the world?
2. Have his books given you a deeper understanding of the Muslim world? Have they altered your opinion about the current situation in the Middle East and other parts of the world where Islam is the dominant religion? Have you become more or less sympathetic?
3. Pamuk’s novels range over a wide span of time, from the sixteenth century (My Name Is Red) to the present day (Snow). Compare your reactions to the historical novels and the contemporary works. Which do you prefer and why?
4. In these books what impact do the tensions between Eastern and Western beliefs and customs have on individual lives, on the relations between classes and ethnic groups, or on political debates? What competing ideologies (or ways of thinking) affect the characters’ behavior and emotional responses? Consider the ethical, religious, and social dilemmas individuals face and how they resolve them.
5. Snow is prefaced by epigraphs from Robert Browning, Stendahl, Dostoevsky, and Joseph Conrad. How does each of them apply not only to Snow, but also to the other Pamuk books you have read? Citing specific passages, how would you characterize the author’s feelings about Western attitudes toward the Muslim world?
6. What role do perceptions—or misperceptions—about Islamic law and religious customs play in the assumptions Westerners make about Muslims? Are there current controversies in the United States or Europe that support your view?
7. Do Pamuk’s depictions of the relationships between men and women conform to your impressions of romance, marriage, and family life in a Muslim society? How are women presented in the historical novels? In what ways do the women in the novels set in the present (or in the recent past) embody both traditional female roles and the new opportunities they have to express their opinions and act on their beliefs?
8. Istanbul opens with an essay about Pamuk’s feelings as a child that “somewhere in the streets of Istanbul . . . there lived another Orhan so much like me that he could pass for my own twin, even my double” (page 3). Many reviewers, including John Updike, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, and Charles McGrath, have written about what McGrath calls “an enduring Pamuk preoccupation: the idea of doubleness or split identity” (New York Times, October 13, 2006). Can you find examples of doubleness in the books you have read, and if so, what do these add to the story? What insights do they reveal about Pamuk’s own sense of identity?
9. What techniques does Pamuk use to bring his characters, real and fictional, to life? How do his descriptions of settings, manners, and other everyday details enhance the portraits he creates? What use does he make of humor, exaggeration, and other stylistic flourishes in his depictions of particular situations, conversations, musings, and arguments?
10. Pamuk employs many of the literary devices associated with postmodern and experimental fiction. (McGrath, for example, notes his use of “narratives within narratives, texts that come alive, labyrinths of signs and symbols . . .”). In what ways do his books echo Italo Calvino’s allegorical fantasies? What do they share with the writings of Jorge Luis Borges and other magical realists? What aspects of his literary style can be traced to earlier masters of innovative fiction like Kafka and Nabokov?
11. In an essay on the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa in Other Colors, Pamuk writes, “It is clear . . . that there is a sort of narrative novel that is particular to the countries of the Third World. Its originality has less to do with the writer’s location than with the fact that he knows he is writing far from the world’s literary centers and he feels this distance inside himself” (page 168). Discuss how this manifests itself in Pamuk’s own works, as well as the works of Vargas Llosa and other authors writing from the Third World. Are there creative advantages to living and writing “far from the world’s literary centers”?
12. Pamuk writes in Istanbul of authors who left their homelands—Conrad, Nabokov, Naipaul: “Their imaginations were fed by exile, a nourishment drawn not through roots, but through rootlessness” (page 6). If you have read the works of these writers, or other authors in exile, do you agree that their books reflect—in style or in content—the effects of living in a new, foreign culture? To what extent is Pamuk’s writing rooted in the storytelling traditions of Eastern cultures? In what ways does it show the influence of his early exposure to Western literature, his participation in international literary circles, and his longtime association with American academia?
13. Despite the many differences between the societies Pamuk describes and our own, why do his characters and their behavior resonant with contemporary English-speaking readers? Are there aspects of Turkish mores that make it difficult to sympathize or engage with the characters in the novels? Do these factors also influence your reactions to his autobiographical pieces, literary criticism, and cultural observations in both Other Colors and Istanbul?
14. How does Pamuk’s personal history, as well as the plots of some novels, mirror the complicated history of Turkey? Consider such topics as: the decline and dissolution of the once powerful Ottoman Empire; the sweeping changes initiated by Atatürk in the 1920s; the conflicting desires to preserve Turkey’s distinctive heritage and to become more active in the global community; and the rise of fundamentalist Islam throughout Middle East today.
15. In discussing the importance of novels, Pamuk says, “Modern societies, tribes, and nations do their deepest thinking about themselves by reading novels; through reading novels, they are able to argue about who they are” (Other Colors, page 233). Do you agree? What can novels provide that nonfiction books and other media do not?
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