I just finally finished My Name is Red, and Orhan Pamuk has created a true masterpiece. I don’t even know where to begin. This doesn’t mean that I necessarily recommend the book. Although it is only about 400 pages long, it is dense, often times too slow and over descriptive on the history of Persian and Ottoman art. Nevertheless, I am in awe of Pamuk’s endless creativity and insight.
As alluded to in my previous post about the book, Pamuk has created a multilayer story that appears to be a murder mystery, but which in reality, is an in depth analysis of the role of the artist, the meaning and purpose of art, the paradoxes of Islamic art, and the Islamic world’s struggle to accept the inevitable influence of the West in 16th Century Istanbul. In this sense, it could be comparable to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, yet written from an Eastern perspective (though I don’t find Pamuk as pedantic or as in need of impressing others as I do Eco — you feel that there is much greater purpose behind Pamuk’s affection for the subject matter).
Particularly interesting is Pamuk’s affection for the figurative artwork of the East in the face of its inability to compete with the technically superior painting style of the West (or Frankish and Venetians masters). This initiates the debate between the characters on the role of the artist in an Islamic world where art that seeks to reproduce or recreate only that which Allah can create is blasphemous. Things like having style, signing one’s name (seeking notoriety or attribution), or being creative are considered deplorable. Thus, artists are rigorously trained to portray everything in the same continuous and unified fashion – things like trees, horses, and the same characters from the same age old stories. Different artist should depict the same scenes and stories almost indistinguishably. Diverging from these pre-established formulas and images (almost as if their ultimate goal was to paint the shadows in Plato’s cave) was considered a flaw or defect.
Consequently, the ultimate sign of greatness amongst an elderly master was to go blind and be able to paint those same images, like photocopies, from memory. At the same time, though, there is the argument about memory, beauty, love, and critical realism – by critical realism, I mean the difference between the reality behind the true nature of what we perceive and how we perceive it). For example, when we remember the beauty of the woman we love and live with that image in our minds even though we haven’t seen her for years, how accurate is our memory or her? What is important: the accuracy of our mental depiction of her, or what that depiction represents to us? Do you love someone more because your mental image stored in your memory is closer to reality and ceases to change over time? Is your love weaker because your memory fades or because that memory is inaccurate?
This is also translated into that conflict between Eastern figurative art and Western portraiture. Eastern art would be the ideal memory of something that we see as beautiful, whereas the Western portrait is not the ideal but the reality – so real that you could pick the subject of the painting out in a crowd. Nevertheless, the East’s traditions and religious beliefs forbade the Western style but ultimately could not compete with the West’s technical superiority — precisely in part because the Eastern technique stagnated due the prohibition of innovation (although innovation did occur, it occurred anonymously over time).
As a character says in one of the final lines of the story (without giving the ending away):
. . . on the one hand [ ] the time-halting masters of Herat could never depict me as I am, and on the other, [ ] the Frankish masters who perpetually painted [ ] portraits could never stop time.
Finally, Pamuk slyly and subtly weaves his own persona into the story.
And so, I finished the novel and proved that I wasn’t as weak as others I know!