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[798] My Name is Red – Orhan Pamuk

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“It is Allah who is creative, who brings that which is not into existence, who gives life to the lifeless. No one ought to compete with Him. The greatest of sins is committed by painters who presume to do what He does, who claim to be as creative as He.” (Ch.28, 160)

My Name is Red, set in late 16th century Istanbul of the Ottoman Empire, is rich in details, ambitious in scope, and subtle in philosophical meanings. In the center of this book, far from being a mere historical novel, is the recurring Pamuk’s internal East-West war. The novel is set in the time when the Ottomans’ confidence in the ever-expanding empire had begun to be shaken by the power of the West.

The story in a nutshell tells of two murders among Sultan Murat’s court artists; one of Elegant, a master miniaturist and gilder, the other of Enishte, the cunningly complicated organized commissioned by the sultan to produce a book that desecrates the Islamic religion. By contributing individual style to these art works, Enishte’s artists are accused of heresy, since the deviation of rote perpetual imitation is illustrating away from Allah’s perspective. Allah’s criterion of beauty is the only that which matters. The style the sultan’s artists surreptitiously adopt is that of Italian Renaissance. Figures are individuals, portraits are of specific people, and even trees, dogs, and dervishes are particulars.

Unlike mere decoration of the text, to portray individuals or objects for their own sake is to give them iconic standing. To coin such stature to objects and people is utter disrespect to Allah. The detective is Enishte’s nephew, Black, who has returned to Istanbul after his uncle had rejected his suit for the hand of Enishte’s daughter, Shekure. He has been summoned back to help organize the book for the sultan. When his uncle is slain, Black hastily weds Shekure, whose first husband disappeared in battle four years ago.

The book is itself constructed around the individualizing perspective; each chapter offers the varying first-person truths experienced by the characters. Death, Satan, a coin, a horse, also give their narratives. The irony of the heinous act is the murderer, who is faithful to the older artistic creed, betrays himself by a distinctive and detectable artistic style that proves his undoing. The narrative of Satan is by far the most provocative and profound. It evokes the philosophical duality that evil is as important and necessary as virtue (good). It’s the duality that one cannot exist without the other. Then at the very heart is an aesthetic tradition renewed and glorified without hatred and rancor. Though not always plot-driven, the book is a literary feat delving on how art, religion, and love intersect.

413 pp. Vintage International. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

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Reading My Name is Red (Orhan Pamuk streak)

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I continue my Orhan Pamuk streak with a title more known to the Western readership, My Name is Red, a murder mystery set in 16th century Istanbul. The opening chapter, intriguingly, is narrated by a corpse:

I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well. Though I drew my last breath long ago and my heart has stopped beating, no one, apart from that vile murderer, knows what’s happened to me. As for that wretch, he felt for my pulse and listened for my breath to be sure I was dead, then kicked me in the midriff, carried me to the edge of the well, raised me up and dropped me below.

The motive of the murder is not monetary, but religious. The premise of the book is relevant of the crisis we fave today. A Sultan commissions a book celebrating the glories of his realm. The artists are to illuminate the work in the European style. But because the figurative art can be deemed an affront to Islam and a deviation from Allah’s perspective, this commission is a dangerous proposition. One of the miniaturists is found dead. This book is ambitious in its scope: part fantasy, part history, and part philosophy. It’s at root a mystery but not exactly plot-driven.

[797] Silent House – Orhan Pamuk

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“…and the wrought iron on the downstairs window was completely rusted. I had s strange feeling: it was as if there were terrible things in this house that I had never apprehended before owing to familiarity but that I was now recognizing with surprise and anxiety.” (Ch.4, 45)

A family reunion is taking place in a village near Istanbul, where Fatima, a 90-year-old widow of a doctor, embittered and trapped in the past, is awaiting the arrival of her grandchildren in a decaying mansion. The ill-tempered woman is attended by Recap, the 55-year-old dwarf who is her late husband’s illegitimate son. He patiently tries to safeguard his dignity from the demands of his tyrannical employer and the casual cruelty of his neighbors. Over time he proves to be the glue of this estranged family and that he helps assuage the inter-generational tension.

“Do you ever feel that way: sometimes I think I’m two people. But I’ve made up my mind, I’m not going to do it anymore. I’m going to be one person, one whole, completely healthy person. (Ch.24, 283)

It’s becoming obvious that the dilapidated house is metaphoric of Turkey, which is on the verge of a military coup in 1980. Fatima’s son quit as his job in the government in protest of its injustice. Like the occupants of the ancient house where memories entrap Fatima, the Turks also are no longer in control of their own destiny. The dwarf’s nephew, Hasan, a high-school dropout, realizes that no school work will enable him to escape his society’s rigid class hierarchy. He turns to a gang of right-wing nationalists to find his place on the world. This is how one knows that violence looms in the prospect. He becomes the story’s driving and destructive force, as he and his pack collide with two of Fatima’s grandchildren. Nilgun, who is object of Hasan’s fixation, is a pretty and good-hundred leftist. Metin is the young kid with an American dream. He, too, is a lovelorn, finding love unattainable and difficult to fit into the circle of rich kids in his school.

Laden with tension, Pamuk’s way of reverting consciousness shows a nuanced society across generations. The narrative contains chapters each told from the perspective of one of the characters. Each is constrained in the individual universes. Whatever constraint from the past—be it a divorce, a disastrous marriage, unfulfilled dream, social acceptance—entraps everyone who is also caught in a time of political instability. All desire to escape from their own awareness to wander freely in a world outside true mind.

Richly layered and character-driven, this book shows the political and social strains in Turkey in the run-up to the military coup in the 1980s, with rival philosophies uncompromisingly heading to national conflicts and personal tragedies. This is Pamuk’s second novel, written 30 years years, well before he received the Nobel Prize. It’s a novel that addresses and satirized national issues of Turkey.

402 pp. Faber & Faber. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Extracurricular Reading

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Reading “Turkish Awakening”

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This is no light reading, but I thought it would serve as a good starting point to get to know Turkey. Modern Turkey has its historical and cultural roots in Ottoman Empire, which peaked in 16th century, spanning three continents and reaching as far as Egypt, Syria, Jordan, all of Asia Minor and Greece. This is all I know about Turkey.

Turkey has followed a turbulent path in recent years (in light of the recent bombings in Ankara and Istanbul, which makes me hesitate to visit) years. It is like an oddball relative, and understanding it a lifelong effort. As EU is considering to waiver visas of Turkish nationals, and Turkey being the top of my list, it’s time to read and understand history of Turkey.

Born to a Turkish mother and british father, Alev Scott returns to Istanbul to find her roots. She was about to finish this book when the Gezi protests broke out in May 2013, leaving more than 8,000 injured and 6 dead. She had no clue what gave, but it was clear to the world, and the Turks themselves, that the country is far more complicated than it looks. Scott interprets the Gezi spirit in this book and investigates the culture and society that precipitated the movement.

The book’s devotion to Turkish people and culture is a deciding factor. It is replete with real observations on daily life in Turkey. “Turkey is more than a country, it is a religion, and that is why anti-Turkish sentiments are equivalent to blasphemy.” Scott observes. The way Turks talk about their country sounds a religious fervor. The day-to-day anecdotes are so informative and appealing—exactly the way way how I would travel. She also alludes to the village-like interdependency of Turkish society. This leads to the dilemma between a solidarity and parochialism.

Scott writes a rich account of life in Istanbul, with thoughtful examples of how language is the soul of any culture. She also catches the myriad contradictions in Turkey, especially in how Kurds and Turks get along. She approaches her subjects with an open-mindedness and without prejudice. I am only browsing through the book and reading a passage here and there. But I get the impression that this is exactly what I have been looking for in helping me understand the country.