“To God belongs the East and the West,” says one of the prominent characters who commits two murders in the novel. “But East is east and West is west,” pat comes the response from Black, the one who identifies the murderer.
Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk’s novel, My Name is Red, revolves round the European (West) and the Turkish (East) perspectives of art. The artist is free to look at the object according to his individual inner truth and understanding in the Western view. Such an artist has an individual style. But the genuine Islamic view has to see an object as Allah would see it. Any individual nuance given by the artist is blasphemy.
The novel is set in 1591, a year before the 1000th anniversary (by the Islamic calendar) of Prophet Mohammed’s flight from Mecca to Medina. The Sultan wants to celebrate the anniversary by publishing a special book which will be illustrated by the best artists (miniaturists) of the country. Enishte Effendi is given charge of the work and he mixes the Western perspective with the Islamic one. Soon one of the artists is killed mysteriously. Eventually Enishte is murdered too by the same killer who is one of the miniaturists with his own ambition and greed.
In the imagination of the people, the motive for the murders is mixed with the activities of the preacher Husret Hoja who is radically opposed to anything that is un-Islamic. Even coffeehouses are dens of sins, according to him. His followers go around punishing people who go astray from the true path of the Koran.
The novel was originally published in 1998 and the English translation followed the WTC meltdown by Osama bin Laden’s religious followers. No wonder, the book received wide publicity in the West at that time. Pamuk raises serious questions about the validity of the kind of fanaticism foisted on people by preachers like Husret Hoja “who were (in the words of a character) desperate to find an aspect contrary to the religion.”
The novel brilliantly explores the meaning of art and religion. When one of the artists says, “There’s much that an artist with a clear conscience has to fear in our day,” he is putting a succinct question mark on the meaning and validity of religion. If clear conscience goes against religion, then what is the significance of religion?
Essentially the novel is an exploration of the meaning of art. It is also an exploration of what distinguishes the East from the West. Religion appears more like a villain whenever it makes its appearance.
There is a love affair too. The most beautiful Shekure is widowed though no one really knows what happened to her husband who disappeared four years ago in a war. Black was in love with her from the time she was a pubescent girl. But he was sent into exile for twelve years by Shekure’s father, Enishte Effendi. The same Effendi takes him back after the exile and the love grows. But there are rivals including Shekure’s younger brother-in-law who argues that his brother is not dead and hence she has to live in the husband’s house. She has been living with her father in order to escape from this brother-in-law’s carnal desires. He supports his view with their religion’s peculiar laws regarding divorce. This whole romance adds much colour and verve to the novel.
It is not at all an easy novel to read, the romance notwithstanding. Each chapter is narrated by a particular character and the whole thing reads like a big jigsaw puzzle that the reader has to put together. More than that, many parts are like debates or discussions on art. However, the murder mystery creeps on to the reader right in chapter one which is narrated by the murdered person himself. Sometimes a dog or the colour red becomes the narrator. Even Death appears as one of the narrators.
Those who love challenging books will find this novel appealing. They must also have a taste for philosophy.