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Invitation to World Literature

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Among the Painters

Art, religion, love, and death: My Name Is Red draws you into the world of sixteenth century Istanbul, a world of painters at a crossroads, living in a golden age of Islamic art in the Ottoman Empire, and encountering the heart of the Western Renaissance in Italy. A story of love, of murder, and of how style, identity, tradition, and the modern speak, affecting how a painter will make a single identifying mark―one line of a horse's nostril, for instance―and how civilizations meet and change one another.

Orhan Pamuk:

"Historical novels are, I think, are about the age they were written. History is an excuse for talking about today in a disguised form and to see the problems differently."

Expand each section to read more.

CE c. 570-632 Life of Muhammad, founder of the religion of Islam.
13th Century-1923 Span of the Ottoman Empire.
1518-1594 Life of Tintoretto, one of the masters of the Venetian Renaissance School in painting.
1520-1566 Süleyman the Magnificent is Sultan of Turkey, extending the empire and consolidating its place as the dominant power in the region. His reign spurred a period of great artistic achievement.
1571 The Battle of Lepanto, a naval battle on the Greek coast between Ottoman and Christian forces over control of the eastern Mediterranean. The Turkish forces were defeated, and the battle became the subject for Venetian painters including Veronese.
1591 Timeframe of My Name Is Red.
1952 Birth of Orhan Pamuk.
1998 Turkish Publication of My Name Is Red.
2001 English translation published.
2006 Orhan Pamuk receives the Nobel Prize for Literature.

So what do you need to know about My Name Is Red before you read it?

What does it mean to be true to tradition, or to change it?

Orhan Pamuk's masterpiece brings many threads together into a vast canvas: it is a love story wrapped inside a murder mystery, and a meditation on the joys and dangers of artistic creation in a time of cultural conflict and change. Constantinople (known today as Istanbul) in the 1590s is the capital of the great Ottoman Empire. For a hundred years, military conquest and glorious achievement in art and architecture have distinguished Turkish rule, but change is in the air. A group of artists have been commissioned to create a secret book for the Sultan, which is remarkable because the work is to be in the Western, or Frankish, style rather than the traditional Islamic style that these miniaturists have trained for all their lives, training which aims to pass on both the craft of miniature painting and book creation, but also its ideals and philosophies.

The novel's story unfolds amidst layers and webs of other stories―many drawn from the riches of Persian and other Middle Eastern literatures. Some of these stories frame actions in the book as they are related by characters, others offer echoes of actions in the book, underpinning events in a more playful way. This play of narrative adds to a rich range of voices that advance the story, the many first-person narrators in the book. The human characters speak to the reader, but so do objects and images that come to life: a coin, the color red, and an illustration of a tree. Each individual voice, including that of the murderer, reveals and conceals information in profound and sometimes funny ways.

My Name Is Red is a philosophical murder mystery: questions of change in artistic style and identity incite passionate debate and even murder, and the search for the culprit turns on the same issues. Should an artist seek an individual style? Should what is painted be so distinct as to be identifiable from its image alone, like Western art? Or should art aspire only to spiritual aims, to help us to see through God's eyes, to portray the ideal and timeless, like Islamic art? Could these visions of art and identity come together?

At another level Red is a novel of love, of wooing after long absence, and the tale of a strong woman shaping her fate in dangerous times among powerful men. Perhaps most of all it is a vivid evocation of a city at once modern and ancient, poised on the edge of East and West and partaking fully of both. Pamuk takes us through the streets of Constantinople/Istanbul, into its homes and coffeehouses, across the Bosporus, and perhaps most powerfully, into the very heart of the Sultan's treasury, where all these stories' themes—painting, tradition, innovation, style, murder, love, and history—come together in a scene of power, vision, and darkness.

The novel is written in Turkish.

Black
A miniaturist, who returns to Istanbul at the beginning of the period of the novel. Black had been the apprentice of Enishte Effendi, whose daughter, Shekure, he has loved since childhood.
Butterfly, Olive, and Stork
Three miniaturists, who, like Elegant, worked on the mysterious book; they are each murder suspects.
Elegant Effendi
(Effendi is a title of honor) A master miniaturist; his voice (as a murdered corpse) speaks the first words heard in the novel; the discovery of his murderer is a central action of the book.
Enishte Effendi
(Beloved Uncle) An artist who directs the creation of a mysterious commission for the Sultan, a book in the style of Italian painters, which he knows from travel to Venice. The final page of Enishte Effendi's book is missing.
Erzurumis
A fundamentalist religious sect.
Esther
A Jewish peddler, and romantic go-between, who passes messages between characters, including notes to and from Shekure.
Master Osman
Head of the sultan's painting workshop, or atalier, a master miniaturist and key detective in finding the stylistic clues that can disclose the identity of the murderer. A rival of Enishte Effendi.
Shekure
Enishte Effendi's daughter, whom Black pursues. Before the period of the book, Shekure has married a soldier and had two sons, Shevket and Orhan. Her husband has not returned from war; at the beginning of the book she is living unhappily in the house of her husband's brother, Hassan.
Storyteller
A café regular who tells tales that poke fun at, among other targets, fundamentalist religion.