In “My Name is Red,” by Orhan Pamuk written in Turkish and translated into English by Erdag M. Goknar food for thought is dished out on steaming plates of rice pilaf with almonds, succulent mutton and another dish, mysterious in origin, that tastes faintly of wonder and hashish.

Paul Wong
Courtesy of Knopf

The closest to describing Pamuk”s style could be the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other Latin American writers fantastic elements are written about without a trace of their implausibility, and are thus, with the subtle prodding of Pamuk”s virtuoso pen, entirely believable without any loss of enchantment. There is, however, a gaping hole in this comparison and as Marquez”s pen seems to write as if existing magically, autonomously from the author, Pamuk”s pen brings to mind images of some surrealist puppet master, dangling the strings of his characters and, in effect, the reader as well.

The novel takes place in 16th century Istanbul. Here, Istanbul (with Pamuk leading the way) is a labyrinth of bustling marketplaces, towering palaces, muddy streets and pungent aromas. Inside smoky coffee houses, poets, dervishes and artists congregate and listen to a master storyteller, paying for their drinks with coins “redolent of opium dens, candle-makers” shops, dried mackerel and the sweat of all of Istanbul.”

The story is told through numerous perspectives (a corpse, a dog, a tree, the color red, not to mention a whole stew of vivid, colorful human characters) that often address the reader directly, and revolves around two murders and a stolen manuscript page. Much of the fun in the book is picking up clues yourself, noting the varying styles of voice Pamuk masterfully employs, and attempting to uncover the identity of the murderer before the murderer himself does. In fact, this seems to be one of the driving forces behind “My Name is Red” as the book is a mystery, so are its characters. As we interact with them, we, the reader, are shrouded as well into the rich, velvety mystery of the novel.

Love and lust also pervade “My Name is Red,” and Pamuk manages to be delightfully vulgar and honest without sentimentalizing the former or overdoing the latter. Pamuk does not claim to have any answers his characters constantly contradict themselves, lie bold-facedly and reinvent themselves. They seem just as confused (if not more) than the reader, which works as both a reassurance and a sort of introspective double-take. However, everyone is so ungodly manipulative, persuasive, intelligent and deducing, that occasionally the tone of the characters belabors on the absurd it”s as if Pamuk feels the need to explicitly describe every notion and its many implications. Rather than just offering up a detail (“she looked down at her toes,”) Pamuk continues, considering every possible connotation of such an act. This seems to contradict Pamuk”s entire idea of mystery (however, you could make the case that it serves to further the sense of mystery through the exploration of possibilities).

Art (like love) has oftentimes been compared to a mystery we can look at the same painting and construe whole worlds of different meanings and worth. So, it seems appropriate that Pamuk”s story revolves around an illuminated manuscript, commissioned by “His Excellency Our Sultan, the Foundation of the World.” The manuscript is rumored to bring about the demise of Persian art (calligraphy and illustrations often based on stories from the Koran), and the start of a new Venetian movement, one that extolls the beauty and individuality of the self (the Italian High Renaissance), over the blurred relationship between the Istanbul state and religion. Much is made of style and signature, painting and time, blindness and memory. From this emerges a crafty, if somewhat overstressed, investigation into how and why we look at art.

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