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In which Netty finally prefers Red to black …

August 28, 2011

Unlike Andy, I have never been to Istanbul (not Contantinople). It’s not even really on my list of must-do destinations. This is despite Andy’s rave reviews of the place (he also brought me back from there a nice little evil eye wall decoration – which, despite hanging directly facing my door-slamming, floorboard-stomping neighbour, unfortunately has still not managed to get rid of him) and also the fact that I have always been a big fan of They Might Be Giants.

Orhan Pamuk’s award-winning opus My Name Is Red didn’t really change my mind on the subject. One thing it did make me want to do, however – and nor has this ever really been on my must-do list – is to read The Koran. As one would expect, interpretations – or perhaps misinterpretations, to be more correct – are at the heart of many of the plot twists and turns of My Name Is Red. Could I have had a better appreciation of the book with a better understanding of the fundamental text that drives it, and, indeed, the Muslim faith? As Doris Day once warbled, perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

Still, and despite being somewhat lacking in knowledge about the 16-century Ottoman Empire, its culture and its religion, my response to My Name Is Red was, well, pretty much red-hot (bad pun No. 1 for this blog entry). I thoroughly enjoyed it, would absolutely recommend it and expect to see it pretty much on or at the top of my list when Andy and I recap ANRC11 at year’s end.

It has all the elements of popularist writing – it’s a murder mystery, it’s a love story, it’s a historical fiction – just ratcheted up, ooh, about one zillion notches from anything Bryce Courtney, Dan Brown or Jodi Picoult has churned out lately. In fact, if the 20 zillion people who shelled out their hard-earned for any of that Da Vinci Code nonsense had bought Pamuk instead, well – in a nutshell, the world would be a much better place. And yes, I am an elitish snob when it comes to books – I make no bones about that, nor apologies – but primarily what has always pained me most is knowing how many brilliant books are out there, largely unread, whilst Brown (just a few shades away from beige, peoples) is sitting atop bestseller lists around the world.

Andy opined in his blog entry that this was not the easiest book he had ever read – and no, it isn’t, but I was pleasantly surprised with the ease with which the pages flew by (as opposed to, say, Charles Stross’s Accelerando, which, after two months, I am still only halfway through – but that’s another story for another day and another blog). Potential readers should not be put off by My Name Is Red’s magnitude, number of pages and subject matter, nor the fact that Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature less than a decade after its initial publication (1998 in Turkey; the English-language version hit the shelves in 2001 – probably because it would have taken the translator about three years to transcribe it).

Speaking of which – and it is a topic I believe I touched on around the time Andy and I read Mario Vargos Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez – My Name Is Red’s translator deserves a helluva lot more than a tiny nine-point nod in the opening credits. Erdag M. Goknar, a US-based academic who has only worked on this Pamuk book, has done a job nothing short of amazing on its translation. It is certainly something for me to keep in mind when (yes, when) I get around to other Pamuk books – comparing their tone, cadence and fluency to that of this one.

Three sentences from the Koran form the epigraph of My Name Is Red, but it is the second – “The blind and the seeing are not equal” (The Creator, 19) – that has the most currency here.  The novel, set in Istanbul in the 1590s, opens with a chapter called “I Am A Corpse” (there are 21 narrators spread across the 59 chapters). It introduces the dead illustrator ‘Elegant’ Effendi, who – along with fellow artists ‘Stork’, ‘Butterfly’ and ‘Olive’, under the guidance of Enishte (‘uncle’) Effendi  – had been working on a secret manuscript commissioned by the Sultan. The existence of the book and its contents – which are suspected to be highly blasphemous – quickly becomes grist for the local rumour mill.

After the murder, Black Effendi, who has been in exile for 12 years and is the nephew of Enishte – returns to Istanbul. He is enlisted by his uncle to help uncover Elegant’s murderer, suspected to be one of the slain man’s fellow artists; meanwhile he is still struggling with his hitherto unrequited love for Enishte’s daughter, his first cousin Shekure. The beautiful young widow, whose soldier husband has been missing in action for four years, is living under her father’s roof with her two young sons Shevket and Orhan, much to the chagrin of her brother-in-law Hasan, who wishes to wed her himself. As the body toll doubles and the royal court becomes involved, Black is quickly embroiled in a race against time to pinpoint the murderer and hold his love-rival Hasan at bay.

See, Dan Brown fans? What’s not to like in all of that?

My Name Is Red is nothing short of masterful – obviously in both its plot and characterisation (Pamuk nails the voices of his many and varying characters, both male and female), but overall in the way it brings to life Turkish society of that era. Its depictions of city life, the role of religion with its moderate and extremist elements, the cultural mores (ah, yes, the ‘young boy’ thing to which Andy alluded) and its art history (although the illustrators’ stance on going blind just left me bewildered – and feeling a little ill) are absolutely fascinating and form a brilliantly evocative backdrop to the intertwined story. It made me want to go out and read everything Pamuk has ever written (ah, make that everything of Pamuk’s that has ever been translated) – although I might need a decade or so, because I don’t think he’s ever actually put to paper anything that has clocked in at less than 500 pages.

PS: There is a historical chronology at the back of the book. Don’t be tempted to read it first – it contains a major spoiler that is pretty well buried (Andy didn’t notice it, but then again he said he initially skimmed it), but is there nonetheless. I, who have been burned before by such things, am very pleased that I left it well alone before embarking on the book proper. I figured it was there in those last pages for a reason, and, as it turns out, I was right.

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