My Name is Red – Actually my name is Andy, although my body hair, in certain areas, is red. You didn’t need to know that, did you

August 21, 2011

I was in Istanbul last year. It’s a pretty fab city. I fell in love with Istanbul. I wandered some of the streets that the characters of My Name is Red wander. That’s pretty cool, I reckon.

My Name is Red is a pretty cool book. I didn’t fall in love with it but I enjoyed it. It’s not the easiest novel I’ve ever read but it’s not the most difficult, either. Whether I’ll read any more of Pamuk’s work…? Probably. But maybe something a tad shorter. My Name is Red is just over 500 pages of pretty dense narration, interspersed with swathes of Middle Eastern/Central Asian history, art theory, theology… It’s a challenging but rewarding read.

The rewards are unusual. I’ve visited Turkey and know a little of the country’s history, but the European History I studied at high school started in the mid to late 19th century, by which time the Ottoman Empire (which was based in what is now Turkey) was known as “The Sick Man of Europe”. So not the kind of culture you’re likely to say “Wow! That’s AWESOME!” about. I’m not sure I’d say the skerricks of Empire we see in My Name is Red deserve to be described as “awesome”, but they’re certainly fascinating. None of what you know by the time you finish this novel is likely to serve you in any way, shape or form, but the idea that knowledge is supposed to “serve” you in some practical, quantitative way is a byproduct of late 20th century neoconservative free-market economic bollocks. Knowledge, even useless knowledge, perhaps even especially useless knowledge, is cool. Like bow ties. And what I learnt from My Name is Red about Islamic art, and its traditions, and the conflict that arose between its practitioners and those who wanted to move towards (what would today be known as) a more “Western” style of painting and drawing, is absolutely fascinating. To know that in late 16th century Istanbul there were religious fringe elements, extremists who you could happily compare to al-Qaida or perhaps the Australian Christian Lobby – fascinating. The fact that every straight Muslim man seemed to think it was perfectly acceptable to have his wicked way with a pre-pubescent, or sometimes barely pubescent boy – fucking bizarre. But also fascinating. And also a bit sort of 5th century BC Athens, or whenever it was those filthy Greeks were all diddling little boys.

For me these elements of the novel surpass the storyline – although in some ways the storyline becomes a victim of these elements. Strip it to its bones and this is arguably a quite basic murder mystery. Throw in some fairly torrid romance and it becomes a slightly melodramatic murder mystery. Throw in some art history, some philosophy, some cultural theory and it becomes… er, My Name is Red. I’ll give it that. It’s pretty unique.

If there’s a major weakness it’s the sort of weakness that many will regard as a strength: Pamuk is very self-consciously writing Great Literature. Like Patrick White, although (I’ve written something like this before, and not very long ago…) Pamuk’s jokes are better than White’s. Rushdie’s the same, although his jokes are better than Pamuk’s. I’m guessing Rushdie will win the Nobel Prize for Literature at some stage, because the bods that give that prize out do so love, apparently, their self-consciously literary, slightly pompous writers. Lots of people like this kind of writing. I really like a lot of Rushdie’s writing (The Satanic Verses, despite claims that it’s virtually unreadable, is actually a bit of a romp), and I quite like White. And Pamuk’s pretty good too. But in Hemingway, who also, incidentally, won the Nobel Prize for Literature, I never really get the sense that he is sitting down to write Great Literature. That’s not how it comes across. And yet … It is.

It’s very much a postmodern book too, and that’s never going to win me over as a fan. That said, though, the manner of Pamuk’s postmodernism is novel (pardon the pun). My Name is Red has been compared to The Name of the Rose, which I haven’t read for years – and when I did read it I still thought metafiction was like the coolest thing that’d like ever happened to like the novel. N shit. Eco uses books metafictively in The Name of the Rose, if I remember correctly; and most postmodernist writers write about stories, written stories, to comment on the concept of storytelling. Pamuk uses pictures. He writes about storytellers using pictures to tell stories and in so doing he comments not just on storytelling but on art in general. And of course there’s the fact that one of the characters is called Orhan, and the character called Orhan has an older brother called Shevket which – Oh! is also Orhan Pamuk’s older brother’s name, and the mother of the character called Orhan, and his brother Shevket, is called Shekure which – Oh! is also the name of Orhan Pamuk’s mother. What a surprise.

I’m not going to claim that I got everything he was on about, because I didn’t, and My Name is Red is clearly a novel written to be re-read a few thousand times if you expect to understand everything about it and I can pretty much guarantee to you that even in the event on nanotechnology rendering death an irrelevance, there is pretty much no chance of me re-reading this book more than maybe once.

But still. It’s pretty cool, and I pretty much enjoyed it. But to be honest, I suspect I’ll be going back to Istanbul before before I go back to My Name is Red.

One comment

  1. Personally, I preferred The Name Of The Rose, but I didn’t have too much trouble understanding this book. But then I am Asian and I’m probably culturally more attuned to its perspective.

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