The Chapter Narrated by Satan May Be the Funniest Part of the Book

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Erda M. Göknar,
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001 [original title: Benim Adim Kirmizi].

While we are supposedly reading crime and mystery fiction at my library’s book discussion once a month, I stray a little out of the box when I help the group select our titles for the year.  The book we end up reading often engenders comments like, “I would have never chosen this book to read.”  Yes, even the occasional “who the hell picked this book?”

Last night’s title was My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk.  Chances are if a group has selected a title by someone who has been bestowed the Nobel Prize for Literature, the book is not going to be a quick read.  This proved true with this story of 16th Century Turkish miniaturists who are struggling to maintain the purity of their craft against the influences of the West.  When one of the artisans is murdered, a young diplomat named Black is charged with figuring out which of the three remaining artists committed the murder.   

That outline of the plot is a skeleton frame for a very complex narrative which tells us more about the nature of Islamic thought, the process of making miniatures in Turkey, the nature of art, man’s relationship to God, and man’s relationship to women (and occasionally little boys).   

In case that does not sound daunting enough, each chapter has a distinct narrator who manages to divulge the truths through such dissembling methods as answering questions with a fable or outright lying.  This novel may set some sort of record for unreliable narrators.  And then there are the chapters narrated by a coin, a tree, a dog and the color red.  Oddly, the chapter narrated by Satan may be the funniest part of the book.

Then, what to make of the role of the central female in this book?  One of the most hotly debated questions we answered last night was:  is this book a romance?  Key to the whole story of Black is whether the love of his life is the classic femme fatale so familiar from hard-boiled American crime novels of the 1930s.  

Pamuk may be as interesting as any of his narrators.  Born in Istanbul, Turkey, in 1952, he managed to talk his parents into letting him live at home until he was thirty.  This was necessary because he studied journalism and architecture before deciding he would grow up to be a Nobel Prize winning novelist. 

So how did the group like this book?  I was afraid to enter the room last night out of fear that the group would not like this book.  Instead, what I found was that the power of the story held the group’s interest with one understanding:  nobody cared who the murderer was. 

The reason for that is that Pamuk is so adept at showing a society of unfamiliarity to Western readers that shocks, dismays, frustrates and educates us while pulling us through the narrative.  Perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned from this novel is that no passage of time changes the nature of people.  The same issues that separated East from West in the 1500s is still present in the world today.  Perhaps no one knows this better than Pamuk.  In Turkey, because of his opposition to fundamentalist religion his comments on the Armenian Genocide, and his outspoken criticism of Turkey’s war on the Kurds, he has been criticized by the government and criminal charges were pressed against him.  As is the fate of the storyteller in his novel, Pamuk has learned that satire is still a punishable offense in some places in the world. 

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About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

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