Book Review of My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

A novel that reads like a fine verbal expression of an exquisite painting.
It has an eccentric structure yet in someways is a throwback to an age of elaborate, descriptive and intense storytelling that creates the atmosphere and builds the plot slowly with care. The characters are finely sketched, many of whom seem to be conflicted or  flawed including the protagonists.
The author has weaved an engrossing tale that combines a gripping murder mystery and a man’s quest for winning the hand of his beloved, with a compelling fusion of history, art, culture, philosophy and psychology, set in 16th century Istanbul during the height of the Ottoman empire.
Black returns to his hometown after twelve years to find the cousin he has desired for long, widowed and a mother of two kids.
Elegant Effendi, who is one of the miniaturists from Black’s uncle’s team has been recently murdered and Black commences an investigation into the cause and to find the perpetrator and also works towards winning his cousin’s hand. In the ensuing discussions, the characters of the other miniaturists in the team, Butterfly, Olive and Stork are unveiled. They had been working on illustrations for a secret project, the purpose of which is known only to the uncle; that it is for a book commissioned by the Sultan.
The storytelling branches out as it renders a beautiful and intimate exploration of the art scene from that era, shaded with political intrigue and  and fierce rivalries and the Ottoman art form is juxtaposed against the Frankish mode of art.
The unusual narrative is nuanced and interesting as it unfolds through the eyes of the characters who are either players or observers. The multiple viewpoints give it a unique flavour and flow, be it from the human characters, from an inanimate painting of a horse, a coin, the colour red, or a dog’s perspective which is fresh, bold and feisty with a cynical touch.
At the crux of the novel lies the philosophical discussion about what defines a true miniaturist, artist and which is the greater, truer traditional art form. There is an underlying East versus West analogy and the temptation and appeal that one holds over the other.
The novel takes a scenic meandering path and via the various narratives and amusing anecdotes embedded within character narratives, raises points to ponder over, while avoiding taking sides and at the same time staying relevant to the plot without veering offcourse.
Should a painting be subjective or objective in its depiction and focus, to be regarded as one and true work of art?
It raises pertinent questions around virtues and principles that define an artist and a painting, rules that have lasted and been carried forward for centuries, defying which can even set off events leading to murder.
An artist who produces an exact impeccable reproduction of the original artwork by early masters without any deviations, versus an artist who consciously introduces his signature style to his brilliant imitation versus an artist whose imitation art work falls short of the original, however negligible the difference…who is deemed the winner? The practice of an accomplished and brilliant artist being blinded intentionally and yet being able to paint from memory; is it tragic, cruel or a triumph of the spirit of art?
Should an artist remain selfless and anonymous letting the painting prevail or should an artist let individuality drive or mark the painting?
Does an artist’s rendition of individuality that flouts the rules count as flaw or style?  How does a painting stand the test of time as it is imitated over and over again down the ages and what are the potential consequences of deviations in a painting reproduction?
These are some of the thoughts the novel inspires as it reaches a conclusion.
While the story as a whole tends to draw you in, the fluid narrative does not invite you to empathize or bond with any of the characters. This could be intentional given the unusual flow and structure of the novel.
The book requires additional focus and undivided attention when reading, else the narrative that switches back and forth between different perspectives can turn a little confusing and cumbersome to follow.
 

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