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"My Name is Red", Orhan Pamuk

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Kanishk Tharoor is associate editor at openDemocracy.

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I met Orhan Pamuk on a bleak, damp day in New Haven. He had just concluded his remarks on "Melancholy-Tristesse-Huzun", words that struggle towards the thick feeling that permeates Pamuk's novels and his nostalgia for Istanbul. Half-dead with bronchitis, I limped over to him, battered copy of My Name is Red in hand, and feverishly wheezed my thanks. He glanced at the book - a paperback worn through by thumbs, its cover creased, corners crinkled - and then looked at the crisp copies elbowing towards him. When he spoke, it was with the wry grace so characteristic of his writing: "At least somebody reads my books."

A generous gift of a line to an avid (albeit haggard) reader, his comment seemed almost demonstrative of the mood of the novel itself, the dry affection for old things and used-up ideas that underlies each page.

Of course, My Name is Red is not simply an exercise in nostalgia. The world of calculating Ottoman miniaturists in late sixteenth-century Istanbul was far too vivid and real to invite plain wistfulness. Often labelled a "murder mystery" (by scheming marketers, one suspects), Pamuk's historical novel is more beautiful than mysterious, more meandering than murderous. To be sure, there is a murder, and there is a detective - the failed miniaturist, Black, freshly returned to Istanbul, irredeemably lonely and inscrutable as Pamuk's protagonists tend to be. And yet he is an accidental detective, just as the "murder mystery" seems incidental to the thrust of the novel.

The plot develops in various first-person narrations, each voice strongly its own, from the industrious Jewish busy-body Esther, the miniaturists "Stork", "Olive", "Butterfly", and even from Death and the colour Red. Its post-modern structure flows from Pamuk's fascination with subjectivity and perspective: the novel is as much about convulsions in art - the revolutionary techniques of the "Venetian masters" shaking the world of Persianate miniature - as it is about the deeds and misdeeds of artists. But like a miniaturist, Pamuk lays down his ink with a very delicate brush. His grand gestures towards philosophy are sugar-coated with playfulness. Despite the ambitious narrative form, he conjures the full world of Ottoman miniature with an intimacy of detail that borders deliciously on excess without ever slipping into it.

Most "period pieces" show a deep concern with evoking a decisive moment, capturing change in process and, in so doing, drawing a parable for the present. My Name is Red does no less. The novel's Istanbul is simultaneously drawn toward the fervent Anatolian heartland, the galleries of Venetian doges, and into its own webbed streets and cavernous hearts. The forces of history and culture vie with the continuity of human life. Pamuk laboriously and lovingly recreates the sensibility of the miniaturist, but the art itself seems an encumbered vocation, heavy with the past and short on future.

Such strong themes have led his readers - not least those who awarded him this year's Nobel prize for literature - to describe Pamuk as a writer of our times, who charts the perennial minglings of old and new, "east" and "west". Pamuk's novels, we are told, do not just interrogate Istanbul (where all but one take place), or even Turkey, but Islam and its struggle with "modernity", and by extension the very process of "cultural interaction" between the west and the rest. Pamuk is doubtlessly an ambitious and challenging writer, but I find it difficult to believe that the soft touches of his pen ever carried such lofty pretensions.

In recent years, however, Pamuk himself has embraced this line of thought. He speaks openly about abstract categories as if they were real places, chastising George W Bush for putting "a lot of distance between East and West". Turkey (particularly its tourist board) has often portrayed itself as a land of encounter between Europe and Asia, a meeting ground for difference. Pamuk has taken up this quintessentially Turkish sense of purpose: in a time of accelerating cultural collisions, his Turkey is an example to the world.

This mission has drawn rather puzzling statements from the recently crowned Nobel laureate. He sees himself as a kind of father-figure for the Turkified-global consciousness, soon to extend to the distant east. Speaking about the "Eastern" novel, Pamuk told The New York Times that "the new modern novel that will come from the East, from that part of the world, will again raise these tensions of East-West modernity and the slippery nature of these rising middle classes in India". One wonders what Pamuk thinks then of the great burst of Indian, so-called "post-colonial" writers who've already made such a mark on the world of letters for the past twenty years.

Pamuk's own project - this Turkish vision of modernity - I suggest, offers an altogether safer, less radical model of globalisation than that proposed by those post-colonial writers concerned not with interactions of east and west, but with transcending such notions entirely. When the post-colonial writer speaks of culture, he does so in a loose, broadened sense of the word. In My Name is Red we gain a sense of two irreconcilable traditions touching fingertips. The centrality of the individual distinguishes the paintings of the "Venetian masters" from the miniaturist's devotion to how "God sees the world", and when Black's uncle fails in his imitation of Italian portraiture, producing an awkward nothing of a piece, the paint only thinly veils the hiccups of modernity.

Pamuk has marketed himself well, and deserves to be read. Nevertheless the strength of his writing rests not on grand global metaphors but in specificity, meticulous care for the moment and his deep evocations of Turkey. It is within the peculiar architecture of that nation-state - where historical and social forces all seek political representation - that Pamuk's bubbling examination of the past finds its greatest meaning.


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