This month of July, we at our book reading club, composed of middle aged general interest women, attempted to read Orhan Pamuk’s novel, My Name Is Red. From the back cover it seemed to be a book of crime and detection set in medieval Turkey concerning miniature painters and their paintings. This was far from the truth and I realized that the reviewer, just like me, had failed to make any sense of this Nobel Prize winning work. Nobel Prizes are sometimes strangely awarded to incomprehensible works, Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Amartya Sen’s Poverty and Famine are among them. Yet everyone seems to be enjoying these works and also understanding them !! But we are middle aged, bred mostly on novels whose forms can be neatly captured into E.M Forster’s Aspects of a Novel and find ourselves at a loss where post modern novels are concerned. No wonder, I could not understand this awesome magnum opus called My Name Is Red.
Since I could not get a hang of the novel, I decided to read selectively, starting with the easier chapters like I am Coin, I am a Tree, I am a Horse and so on. I found the book read in this way yielded a certain thematic continuity. The protagonist is a dead person whose soul is not wholly free to leave the world and who rises out of his grave and visits his city Istanbul. The dead person was a miniaturist, who now, because of his disembodied condition, can delve into souls of various other miniaturists, souls as is evident through their paintings. Since the atma is a knower of everything, our protagonist who is now a soul too can see through those events that inspired the paintings and it is through these paintings that his life as it was in Turkey’s Istanbul comes to light.
Turkey is a unique country because it has been at the periphery of a rich Greek tradition and then been somewhat in the off the middle of the Holy Roman Empire. It constitutes one end of the Silk Route whose other end is in Japan through China. It has been ravaged by Mongols and the Iranians, invaded by the Serbs, Huns and Magyars and Jordanians, Persians, Croatians and Slavs have found sources of livelihood and patronage in Istanbul. As the centre of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey has combined traditions of ancient Greece and Renascent Europe, of medieval Persia and of the Holy Crusades and Knight Templars, and it has combined with grace, theologies of Christianity and Islam. In fact, Turkey was the first Islamic country to adopt Western ideas and institutions with open arms and has been since the leader of modernity among the Islamic nations.
The miniature paintings are ways of expressing the everyday life of the Turkish Sultanate in its mundane materiality and also sublime aesthetic. The times of the protagonist are times of murder and killing, for the end of the Ottoman Empire are also times when sensibilities such as those of the Istanbul artists are stamped out of existence. The disembodied soul asks what went wrong and finds some major differences between the Ottoman miniatures and the Renaissance expressionisms as causing the death of the former. The soul then ruminates on the miniatures in the light of philosophy of art and asks questions that today constitute the clash of civilizations.
The questions around art are as follows; what is perfection, is it an affair of the community, a product of history, or should it be frozen in time? If it is frozen in time, then art will lose its relationship with life and plunge into darkness as the one that existed before time. If this be the case then Black takes over as the only one that exists before Creation and possibly also after it. If art has to respond to time, then what does the stork bring with it? How does time change and how do we pursue perfection amidst change? Perfection is known as perfection only when it is past, then is art only backward looking? If art is to become contemporary who will make it so? Does the contemporarization mean individual stylization and if the individual styles his painting then can individuality be prevented? The individual can of course curtail his ego by seeing the world as if on behalf of the community except he may encounter the problem that categories of the community are often agreements conducted out of arguments in the past. If this is the case then what are ideas of things and how do they differ from the things themselves, asks the Tree, a definite character in the novel.
What then is the way of looking ahead if not through the avant garde? If the individual does not stamp his signature on art then will art only be representational? If so, then what is the difference between art and a diagram? The objects in a painting assume significance inside the coordinates of that painting because if the horse is inside a painting then obviously it derives meaning from within the painting just as it derives its existence from its context in real life.
The repeated motif in the book is that of Husvru and Shirin, the familiar myth of the Oedipus. For the West, the guilt of Oedipus is incest, for the Ottoman Empire, the guilt is transgression of boundaries of individual impulses and social customs. The Ottoman individual is social, whose anxiety is that he should never be seen to stamp his signature on the world; the individual in the West is exactly the opposite, he should never be lost in the social milieu. The ideal state of affairs is then somewhere in the middle; the individual who is absolute gets a God’s view of things which is like climbing on to a high tower and looking down to see mass destructions as armies of the Mongols attack libraries, books, and paintings of the Sultanate; if the individual is like the Ottoman one who merely adds on his style to spice up things and colour the world, then his name is Red, a root word that means colour.
Red is opposed to Black, Black as in the colourless darkness of times before Creation. Red clearly opposes both the theologists who believe in the stories of Origin and also the blindness of the mystic Sufis as both being anti-art and therefore, anti-existence. The protagonist invokes the Prophet’s distinction between the blind and the seeing and suggests that seeing is more real and thus is both realistic and artistic.
I have not read beyond this with the sincere hope that someone will read the Shekure chapters as the mashooka of the deceased and now ghost ashique.