My Name Is Red

After the disaster that was Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, I hesitated before giving another Nobel prize-winning author a shot. But Orhan Pamuk's novels were everywhere during my stay in Turkey. Every time I entered a gift shop, I would once again see his books and then peruse them, and my curiosity was piqued. Back in Canada, I ordered two of them to give the author a try. And since Márquez's so-called masterpiece left me so thoroughly disillusioned, I elected to read the work that earned Pamuk the Nobel prize in Literature.

Unlike One Hundred Years of Solitude, Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red captivates you from the very beginning, grabbing hold and never letting you go. Though not fantasy per se, the setting and Pamuk's writing style should please most speculative fiction aficionados.

Here's the blurb:

From one of the most important and acclaimed writers at work today, a thrilling new novel—part murder mystery, part love story—set amid the perils of religious repression in sixteenth-century Istanbul.

When the Sultan commissions a great book to celebrate his royal self and his extensive dominion, he directs Enishte Effendi to assemble a cadre of the most acclaimed artists in the land. Their task: to illuminate the work in the European style. But because figurative art can be deemed an affront to Islam, this commission is a dangerous proposition indeed, and no one in the elite circle can know the full scope or nature of the project.

Panic erupts when one of the chosen miniaturists disappears, and the Sultan demands answers within three days. The only clue to the mystery—or crime?—lies in the half-finished illuminations themselves. Has an avenging angel discovered the blasphemous work? Or is a jealous contender for the hand of Enishte’s ravishing daughter, the incomparable Shekure, somehow to blame?

Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red is at once a fantasy and a philosophical puzzle, a kaleidoscopic journey to the intersection of art, religion, love, sex, and power.

Essentially, My Name Is Red is a muder mystery set in 16th century Istanbul. On a different level, it is also an exploration of the concept of art within the confines of Islamic society and how their interpretation of art clashes with that of the Western world. The story takes place in 1591 during the reign of Sultan Murat III, and the author's depiction of 16th century Istanbul and Ottoman Empire gives this work an unforgettable vibe. Exactly the sort of Islamic "flavor" I expected Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon to have. This is an exploration of Islam by a Muslim author, which means that there is a lot of depth and countless nuances that imbue My Name Is Red with the type of realism that Christian authors or writers of various faiths simply cannot grasp or portray.

Like George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, each chapter of Pamuk's My Name Is Red features a different narrator, more than a dozen in total. This cast of disparate protagonists allows us to see the tale unfold through the eyes of vastly different men and women. There are a few odd POV choices, such as Satan, the color red, a tree, a dog, and a corpse. These narrators do serve a purpose, that of shining some light on various elements of 16th century Islamic society.

The pace is crisp for the better part of the book, as Black seeks to unveil the identity of the murderer of Elegant Effendi. The panoply of POV characters, the witty narratives, the arresting imagery, and the convoluted plot all make for a page-turner. Near the end, the rhythm becomes a bit sluggish and Orhan Pamuk's novel suddenly become a treatise on Islamic art for a while. Still, the various info-dumps don't take much away from the overall reading experience.

Intelligent, richly detailed, and thought-provoking, as a murder mystery work Pamuk's My Name Is Red remains an accessible novel that should satisfy even jaded readers looking for something different.

Highly recommended.

The final verdict: 8.5/10

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