Analysis of Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red

My Name Is Red, the recipient of the International Impac Dublin Literary Award in 2003, is perhaps the most celebrated book by the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk (1952– ), who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2006. The novel, which is superficially a murder mystery, details the artistic and philosophical conflicts that surround Ottoman miniaturist painters during the 16th century.

Pamuk tells his story through a number of short chapters spoken in the voices of different narrators that range from inanimate objects drawn on paper to the central characters (including Enishte, a miniaturist commissioned by the sultan to produce a secret book of illustrations; his daughter Shekure; and his nephew Black, who returns from exile in the East). The different voices, and the novel itself, further the contemporary Turkish debate over the impact of Western culture as Turkey seeks to create a coherent identity for its multicultural populace. In addition to the main story, the reader is presented with a subplot: The rekindling of the childhood love between Black and Shekure provides a glimpse of a woman’s life in the Ottoman Empire. Well aware of Enishte’s declining reputation and popularity among fellow miniaturists due to the secret book, Black takes it upon himself to protect himself and his daughter. In this way he hopes to win Shekure’s heart and convince her of a speedy divorce from her estranged husband in order for him to marry her.

Orhan Pamuk Via Border Kitchen

The first narrative belongs to the corpse of a miniaturist in the Ottoman court, Elegant Efendi, who reveals that his death is a result of religious conspiracy designed to suppress the artistic innovations introduced from the West. Both Elegant and Enishte have been attentive to the new forms of painting in the West. In their attempts to incorporate Western portraiture into their traditional miniatures, they anger extremists who perceive the West as a threat to the preservation of Ottoman culture.

By foregrounding the discrepancy between the Eastern and Western modes of seeing and representing, Pamuk sets the stage for a discussion of the conflicts that have influenced the relationship between East and West. He also observes how different artistic visions can become political matters in a society struggling to find its identity amid tensions between liberals and conservatives. While progressive miniaturists are enthusiastic about incorporating Western techniques, the fundamentalists condemn the West’s emphasis on originality, individual style, and autonomous subject matter, fearing that such depictions are sacrilegious.

A mouthpiece for extreme conservatism, the murderer, whose voice we hear without learning his identity, maintains that miniature painting should stick to the basic philosophical principles of Islamic decorum. In Islam, painting is deemed blasphemous, for the Koran explicitly prohibits pictorial representations to avoid idolatry. Within strict parameters, Muslim artists work with sophisticated forms of gilding, ornamentation, and miniature—the only acceptable forms of representational art. The art of miniature compels the artist to represent visually the symbolic rather than individual nature of objects, adopting an elevated viewpoint to emulate the way Allah sees the world from above. Any challenge to these principles, according to the murderer, is an affront to religion. The characters who remain open to change, like Enishte and Elegant, also consider themselves devout Muslims, but they explain that their effort to embrace foreign innovations does not reflect a desire to become Westernized; rather, they believe that artistic traditions are better served by incorporating difference.

The separation between the affairs of the state and religion, in this and other novels, is crucial for Pamuk, who believes that religion is a private practice that should therefore have no weight in political discussions. Pamuk identifies secularism as a condition of modernity. The insider/outsider binary of religion, he observes, often threatens the fundamental principles of a multicultural society.

My Name Is Red is a testament to the crisis of identity that the Ottomans suffered and bequeathed to modern Turkey. Pamuk indicates the futility of the fundamentalist position, underlining that cultural exchange should not be equated with loss of identity; on the contrary, just as the Ottoman miniaturists have borrowed from the masters of Herat in the East to perfect their techniques, they should also recognize the value in innovations from the West. Liberal artists such as Elegant and Enishte understand the value of harmonizing different ways of seeing. For this reason, Enishte’s acceptance of the sultan’s commission is not just an artistic endeavor, but a political act that advocates a more productive relationship between East and West, and Elegant’s murder is a warning about the extremes to which some will go to prevent that new relationship from taking root.

Analysis of Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book

Freeman, John. “In Snow, an Apolitical Poet Mirrors Apolitical Pamuk.” Village Voice, 17 August 2004. Pamuk, Orhan. “The Anger of the Damned.” New York Review of Books 18. 15 November 2001.
———. The Black Book. Translated by Güneli Gün. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1996.
———. “Freedom to Write.” New York Review of Books, 25 May 2006.
———. Istanbul: Memories of a City. Translated by Maureen Freely. London: Faber and Faber, 2005.

Categories: Literature, Mystery Fiction, Novel Analysis, Turkish Literature

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