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My Name Is RedReview - My Name Is Red
by Orhan Pamuk
Random House Audio, 1998
Review by Christian Perring
Dec 16th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 51)

Originally published in 1998, My Name is Red has recently been published as an unabridged audiobook by Random House, read by John Lee.  The performance of the 432 page book lasts 16 CDs.  Many readers report that reading the book is hard work: not only is it long, but it is set in 1591 Istanbul, featuring a cast of miniaturist painters.  Each chapter is narrated by a different character, starting off with the corpse of the miniaturist who was murdered, and including a dog, a coin, the murderer, and some of the other miniaturists and members of their families.  It is a dazzling accomplishment: superficially it is both a murder mystery and a love story, but it is also a meditation on the Islamic tradition of visual representation compared to the Western tradition, and the place of individual style in the work of painters.  Yet many readers report giving up on the novel after a valiant effort trying to get through it, so having an audiobook version which provides a much easier way to "read" the book, and so making it accessible to more people.

Here are some of the main plot elements.  (A fuller account is available on the Wikipedia page for the novel.)  A group of miniaturists work for the Sultan.  Master Osman is in charge.  The initial group consists of Elegant Effendi, Black, Butterfly, Stork, and Olive.  An older man, Enishte Effendi, has secretly commissioned some of the miniaturists to make a book.  Black is in love with Enishte Effendi's daughter, Shekure.  Shekure has two children with her husband, but her husband is a warrior and hasn't returned home, so many believe he must be dead.  One of her husband's brothers wants to marry her, but she is far more attracted to Black.  We know from the start that murderer of Elegant Effendi was one of the other miniaturists.   

Pamuk depicts a culture in which religious observance is absolutely required, and this should be plain in the work of the miniaturists.  This leads to considerable discussion of what is the nature of representation, and what the perfect representation would be.  There is considerable hostility to the Western invention of perspective because it reduces painting to what humans see rather than showing God's perspective, yet the Western work is also having an influence on the work of some Islamic painters.  Furthermore, some miniaturists also want to emulate Western painters in having their own style, but they realize that this is heretical. 

Most readers will be unfamiliar with the history and culture of the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century, so the novel is often bewildering and educational.  One small disadvantage of the audiobook is that it is not convenient to refer the short chronology of major historical events that is right at the end of the book, but it is easy to refer to other reference works, such as Richard Hooker's online history.  Pamuk goes into the history of portraiture in considerable detail, and the many facts he includes have the feel of historical accuracy.  Pamuk refers to many people and books of which readers will have never heard, so one gets a sense of being thrown into another culture.  It is intriguing.

The sheer brilliance of the writing is astonishing.  The constantly shifting narrators are disconcerting, especially since we know that one of them is the murderer, and so will be lying to us.  We get the perspectives of each character, and so come to understand what each is telling and withholding from other people.  It makes for a labyrinthine structure, even though the actual sequence of events depicted over a period of several days is relatively straightforward.  There's an initial rush of excitement in coming to see what Pamuk is doing, and then one has to keep up one's concentration to sustain one's enthusiasm for the book.  However, it is a book that repays the attention, and you may just be left wanting to listen to it again to get clearer on some of the details.  Reader John Lee does an excellent job in his performance, keeping his tone steady yet engaged.  Highly recommended.

Link: Review of Snow: A Novel

© 2008 Christian Perring

Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.


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