April 14, 2007

My Name is Red

My Name is Red
Orhan Pamuk, 1998

Well this is a tough book. First and foremost, it's a philisophical novel, and those are always easy to talk about but hard to say anything meaningful about. In addition, the branch philosophy dealt with here is (for the most part) aesthetics, and that's just a really tricky one to make into a narrative. The overall structure puts me in mind of Calvino - though that may just be my limited knowledge talking. Anyhow, getting down to the nitty-gritty, there are quite a few frustratingly dull stretches, and on the other hand there are passages of such pristine beauty that you have to catch your breath and re-read before exhaling seems an option.

The story unfolds from the individual perspectives of a dozen or more characters. This conceit really drives things along beautifully, and it's hard to imagine the big themes (the ways aesthetic concerns influence the way we live our lives and vice-versa) could be explored as deeply without the perspective-shifts. There's a mystery(very Chan is Missing), a romance or two, a courtly intrigue, several artist rivalries, a clan feud, a ghost story, teenage angst, historical adventure, divine wrath unleashed. Pretty much everything you'd want from a story set in 16th-century Istanbul, I guess. They all dovetail together quite neatly, without giving short shrift to things like characterization and narrative description. Leitmotifs of various kinds connect distant and diverse parts of the book. On top of all that, I have to say that it's not easy to write prose that really evokes the practice of the visual arts, but Pamuk accomplishes that very successfully. No mean feat.

There are quite a number places where the writing seems to drag, usually recountings of history or the minutiae of painting styles. I tried really hard to take the novel on its own terms, and just take what I could from those sections, but I found it difficult to adjust to the plodding pace for a chapter, then ramp up to the more free-flowing tempo. Still, it's hard to be too unhappy about that when you get to read stuff like this, about a group of artists sitting around reminiscing about artworks they've seen:

"As if they were our own unforgetable and unattainable memories, we wistfully discussed our favorite scenes of love and war, recalling their most magnificent wonders and tear-inducing subtleties. Isolated and mysterious gardens where lovers met on starry nights passed before our eyes: spring trees, fantastic birds, frozen time ... We imagined bloody battles as immediate and alarming as our own nightmares, bodies torn in two, chargers with blood-spattered armor, beautiful men stabbing each other with daggers, the small-mouthed, small-handed, slanted-eye, bowed women watching events from barely open windows ... We recalled pretty boys who were haughty and conceited, and handsome shahs and khans, their power and palaces long lost to history. Just like the women who wept together in the harems of those shahs, we now knew we were passing from life into memory, but were we passing from history into legend as they had?"

There are lots of big ideas here, and all handled with grace and subtlety. Definitely rewarding.

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