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February 02, 2006

Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red

I've been wanting to write something insightful about this novel, which I read recently. To state that is is a masterpiece is not nearly as convincing or useful as to interpret it or elucidate one of its many themes. Unfortunately, I haven't had a chance to collect my thoughts about My Name is Red. Rather than leave it unmentioned, I'd at least like to express my admiration for this remarkable book. It contains intricate, completely original puzzles and stories on metaphysical subjects--worthy of Borges. However, Borges was uninterested in human beings and couldn't sustain a plot or create appealing characters. My Name is Red revolves around two people who are richly imagined and likeable. They interact with numerous other people, at least two of whom have unforgettable personalities. Pamuk's puzzles and Borgesian short stories are integral parts of an overall plot which is very suspenseful, compelling, and naturalistic. Whereas Borges is cold and cerebral, Pamuk is deeply humane.

The novel plays with philosophical themes--the purpose of representational art, the relationship between painting and memory, the idea of an artistic style and of originality, blindness and insight, the influence of the West (and cultural influence, in general). With excellent "negative capability," Pamuk avoids taking a position on these issues but instead shows them from many angles. If all these virtues weren't sufficient, My Name is Red vividly represents the unfamiliar world of Istanbul, ca. 1591. And Pamuk makes great use of the modernist device of giving each chapter to a different narrator--all highly unreliable. At the very end, we learn something surprising about the narration of the whole book.

Pamuk has been persecuted by the contemporary Turkish state; he just won a tactical legal victory. The following two claims are both true but are completely separate and independent:

(1) Orhan Pamuk is a hero of free speech whose legal case is important for human rights. (And I say that having spent some six total weeks in Turkey, a country for which I feel a lot of sympathy and fondness.)

(2) Orhan Pamuk is one of the greatest contemporary novelists in the world.

Posted by peterlevine at February 2, 2006 07:18 AM

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