Article Art, Politics & Protest

My Name is Red: a book about art, influences, relationships and intrigue

“Painting is the silence of thought and the music of sight.” ― Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red

Introduction to the Author: Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk is an author of Turkish descent and currently lives in Istanbul, Turkey. In a list of many other excellent novelists from Turkey, his name features prominently as one of the leading authors from Turkey. He comes from an affluent background in Turkey. He has also studied journalism. His dream career was painting and being an artist; however, in reality writing is the only career he has pursued.

Some of the prominent novels written by him are The Black Book, the Museum of Innocence, Snow, The White Castle and also the non-fiction book called The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist. His book My Name is Red, Benim Adım Kırmızı, in Turkish, translated into English, won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2003, in addition to other important awards. Orhan Pamuk also won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006.

Orhan Pamuk, following his personal writing style and literary prowess, uses a lot of Turkey’s history and locations to construe and create stories in print. My Name is Red is one such novel and has been translated into English, by Erdağ M. Göknar. Following is an analysis and review of his book My Name is Red.

Series of stories

A long narrative and a series of short 59 chapters open windows into a world of picturesque stories-within-a-story—and resembles a panorama of connected paintings, from which, evolve a story of miniaturists and book illuminators. Their detailed illustrations accompanying narratives, calligraphies and stories bound-as-books, from sixteenth-century Turkey, specifically from Istanbul and neighboring regions, even worldwide, prominently, form the basis of the lengthy storyline.

The art of miniature painting and its ability to support fables, real stories, historical narratives of Turkish history and history of other regions, in its many folds, forms a powerful reflection of the culture that was dominant in the region, earlier. The influence of history on Islamic art and the influence of Islam on the art prevalent in Turkey historically is also the premise of this novel.

It is mostly in the accompanying illustrations of particular books that the story of this novel, finds its background and also, its foreground. The novel is a many-ingredient concoction of murder, intrigue, romance, art, mysticism, choices, and a gradual unravelling of layers of deceit, irreverence, and secrecy. The main plot, however, unravels in a time frame of nine days.

The many chapters have specific names, initially introducing mostly, principal characters within the story. My Name is Red is also based upon multiple first person narratives, which also include inanimate and animate object narratives, who bring to the fore, activities and on goings within Istanbul, around 1591—during the reign of Ottoman Sultan Murat III, right before the thousandth year of the Hegira, a period when Prophet Muhammad had emigrated from holy Mecca to Medina.

Multiple chapters, narratives and the plot

The story begins with a chapter, called ‘I Am a Corpse,’ then it changes to ‘I Am Called Black’, then to ‘I Am a Dog’, and ‘I Will Be Called a Murderer’, I Am Your Beloved Uncle’, and others like ‘I, Shekure’, ‘I Am Called “Butterfly”’ and so on. In the first chapter, ‘I Am a Corpse’—a corpse narrates what he feels in the afterlife, how he came to be a murdered man and what he feels about his murderer. This unique first-person point of view continues throughout all the chapters.

Further stories, are simply at first, introductions and then, re-entries of the many characters throughout the course of the story. Some of these characters are confounding in their naivety, cunning, and stubbornness. Uniquely, non-human characters like the dog, the tree, the gold coin, death, Satan, even the colour red, are the many other narrators, telling their own stories—some in the voice of the nonconformist coffeehouse storyteller. Their individual stories interestingly depict their emotions and their point of view.

Nevertheless, the narrative begins with a murder and the story courses forward. In the initial stages, the story focuses on the death, and then introduces, a principal character—Black—a man, who calls himself - ‘a connoisseur of decoration and illustration, writing and other tasks’, in the book. He has returned to Istanbul, after 12 years.

Black is to meet his uncle, his Enishte, under whose patronage, he had lived as a youth, learnt about the art of book illumination and while in his house, had also fallen in love with his beautiful daughter, Shekure, and had declared it, too, at the time. His uncle hadn’t thought him suitable for her and she hadn’t either, and Black had to leave Istanbul. After many years, Black sees his Uncle and widowed Shekure with her two sons, Orhan and Shevket, and the memories of a spahi cavalryman husband, who has not returned from war, in four years.

Black’s uncle is illuminating a secret illustrated book for the Sultan, who has commissioned the secret illustrated manuscript project to him, to be finished in time for the thousandth-year anniversary of the Hegira. Meanwhile, the Sultan has also assigned an open book project, Book of Festivities to Master Osman, the Head Illuminator, to work on with his team of miniaturists.

Master miniaturists working on this clandestine descriptive and ornamented-with-minutiae-paintings-book for the Sultan, are, therefore, a significant part of the storyline. As a team, the miniaturists are in a way, building and working together—but with the Sultan’s permission, they are mainly working sequestered and separately, on producing intricate drawings and beautiful detailing of the Sultan’s life for this mysterious book. This book is also meant to be presented as a gift to the Venetian Doge by the Sultan himself, when it is completed.

The Sultan wishes to see art that frames the secret manuscript to be created by master artists—drawings that will subtly emphasize his power in the Ottoman Empire, his realm, and his life, but his intentions, however, include a sort of blasphemy. Black’s Enishte, has initiated this violation, influencing the Sultan, and keeping the miniaturists, too, in the dark—somewhat. The four master miniaturists themselves do not clearly know who has commissioned the confidential work either—such are the methods of the beloved uncle.

One of the four miniaturists, mainly the master gilder, assigned to work on individual border work for the secret book, Elegant Effendi, however, is missing. Black’s Enishte has recalled Black to Istanbul, to help with work on the Sultan’s unique book. Black is not only meant to eventually write the stories that will accompany the illustrations; the stories, inspired by the paintings themselves, but he is also to initially find out the whereabouts of the missing miniaturist, including finding the murderer, in case the missing miniaturist has indeed been killed.

To solve this, Black’s uncle, first sends Black to meet Master Osman, who also happens to be his uncle’s rival. Black travels to the arts workshop, within the city—where, under the guidance of Master Osman—the apprentices, students and masters of the art are busy at work. Black had once been a young apprentice here and recalls the schedules and teachings followed in the workshop.

Black also meets the three remaining main miniaturists working on the book—The Butterfly, the Stork, and Olive, also known as Velijah. The artists are working at home, secretly, on the illustrations of the special book. Black spends some time with each of them. Moreover, he also has three questions from Master Osman, which he personally wants to put to the artists and gauge their convictions and personal theories with regard to the art they so religiously follow.

Differentiation between a true miniaturist from an inauthentic one, and questions related to the import of style and signature, time and blindness, are put forward to the three miniaturists. They have their personal beliefs, know-how, skills and temperaments, which influence their work, and they respond accordingly. Upon further inquiry from Black, they, however, share nothing related to Elegant Effendi’s disappearance.

As Black travels through the winding and cold streets of Istanbul, in contemplation, he also wants to rekindle his love for Shekure, expecting Shekure to reciprocate. Misunderstandings, ironically, allow them to come together, and so do, regular letters, as veiled responses and requests that are exchanged between them, with the initial assistance of Esther, a local pedlar.

Intrigue, however, dots the slowly emerging romantic plot, as Black resumes not only his probes into the disappearance of Elegant Effendi, but he is also able to establish a rapport with Shekure and her two sons. On the other hand, Shekure’s brother-in-law, Hasan, has other plans, and wants her to return to the house of her in-laws so that he can acquire her affections, for himself.

The murderer, however, is still on the loose, and kills again, this time—it is someone close to Black. The second murder is shocking, and heaps on the plot, a chain of events, resulting in a quick divorce, a hastened marriage, an unexpected but brief involvement of the Sultan himself, in the investigations, Master Osman’s not-completely-voluntary participation, and subsequent raids on the homes of the master miniaturists.

The first murder, had started a trail of episodes, and the denouement, ends the answer to the questions—who had killed Elegant Effendi? Is it one of the miniaturists working on the secret book or the Book of Festivities or someone else, from amongst the many names that come forward in the novel? Black does find an answer to the murder and the subsequent killing, too, and the reasons behind them, but does his own personal life, return to what he had once wanted with Shekure? Is Hasan able to destroy Black’s relationship with Shekure? What is the fate of the murderer and also the book-being-made-in-secrecy?

Nevertheless, revelations within the novel give rise to its conclusion. A collision in terms of perspectival techniques and a different portrayal of art—pointing to a clash between the art as followed by the Masters of Herat, which is the old tradition, versus Venetian art, specifically Portraiture and those by the Frankish masters—is at the heart of some of the ills that occur.

The murders occurred indirectly due to traditional beliefs, fear of a group’s probable and possible protest, against a modernistic view of art, where influences that deviate from traditions should be stifled, for they are merely deviant, and hence, violate. However, the fate of the murderer is not inconsequential. In violence, no resolution shall ever come about—and this is the message the story wishes to perhaps also convey.

Art and influence

This narrative, through the medium of art, has in several places, spiritual connotations. The blind master artist can draw from memory, for blackness is necessary for colours to rise. As defined by one of the master miniaturists in the story, it is in blindness alluding to darkness, that colours and art, truly find existence and expression. Similarly, throughout the book, artist-characters use the aid of fables and true stories from history to make their point, instead of using simple explanations.

The author, perhaps, indirectly also subtly hints at the merits of acceptance and focuses on the reality that certain art forms decline and some ascend with the passage of time. To accompany thoughts and portrayals, in the form-of-miniature-paintings, the author has plunged into the artists’ minds, and conjured from their on-paper-expressions, a story of how stories, colours, themes, gold leaf work, patterns and designs also constitute art, how religion also affects art and how art affects lives.

It is from the religious beliefs of an Islamic world and its influence on paintings-as-illustrations, as it existed in Istanbul and its neighbouring locations then and its cohesion with an overall umbrella of art—that the story unfolds. The author has also elucidated stories, through paintings and drawings and narrated many tales, real stories, from the history of Istanbul, its pashas, rulers, and legendary couples.

Characters like Hüsrev and Shirin, Leyla and Mejnun and so many other names like Alexander the Great, Rüstem and numerous legends could be interesting to many readers because they are vocal in their silence as paintings. The author also refers to other books, like the Book of Kings, Book of Souls, Book of the Apocalypse, Book of Victories, Gifts of Intimacy and many other names for further elucidations.


In addition to the suspense, the narrative is a beautiful blend of book art and the intricacies of painting, which also become the cause of the murders. Articulating tales within a tale, the author skillfully embellishes the novel and formulates the story of Black’s return to Istanbul, and his role in finding the murderer, by further deepening his relationships with the miniaturists and also with those he had once lost.

My Name is Red is not a conventional novel. Due to the varying first person narratives, this book could be quite a long read for some, and the reader, will on several occasions, encounter different characters narrating directly to them. A reader would find themselves immersed in the depths of book illumination, which was once a significant part of artistic creation in former times.

This novel is, however, also the story of Black and Shekure—and it is also a chronicle of reciprocation and love in its many hues—between a father and a daughter, between a mother and her children, between a master and his students, between friends and between individuals and their impassioned beliefs.

Works of translation like My Name is Red bring to readers a different culture to understand and experience. This beautifully translated book, originally written by a profound and subtle author such as Orhan Pamuk, would primarily appeal to admirers of art and fiction. Here, historical fiction flows through a river of illustrations-in-text and carries the reader along, against the current, at times.

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Photo: My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, (c) Trisha Bhattacharya

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