Invitation to World Literature
My Name Is Red My Name is Red – Key Points
Key Teaching Points and Discussion Prompts
- The city of Constantinople/Istanbul is as vibrantly depicted as any of the characters in the novel, described with intense sympathy and attention—as is the case in many of Pamuk’s books, most notably his memoir Istanbul. In addition to the love of a writer for his native city, how does Istanbul’s position in history and in geography influence the novel?
- In the book, Enishte Effend, in discussing book art, says that “nothing is pure” and that when art thrills him, he can be sure that “two styles heretofore never brought together have come together to create something new and wondrous.” How does My Name Is Red itself embody this coming together of elements of the Western novel and the tradition of Turkish and Middle Eastern art and story telling? What surprised you about the structure and style of the book in comparison to other novels you may have read?
- Much is made in the novel of the strong contrast between Venetian art and the work of the miniaturists’ workshops. The sense of individual style of the Italian painters who sign their works, and their creation of portraits so realistic that the subject could be recognized on the street, are challenges to the anonymous art of the workshops, where individual styles are sublimated to the directions of the master and to the spiritual goals of art.
Yet the mystery of the novel hinges on identifying a murderer who works in this traditional anonymous style—who is willing to kill to protect it—and yet a single line in one of his paintings is enough to reveal his individuality, and his guilt. What does this suggest about the arguments of individuality in Frankish vs. Turkish art; are the two different approaches to the underlying question of what is style and the purposes of art incompatible?
- What do you make of the theme of blindness in the novel? Early in the novel, blindness is described this way by Master Osman, “It’s the farthest one can go in illustrating: it is seeing what appears out of Allah’s own blackness,” an experience which is fulfilled later in the book. How does this theme work in the plot, and what do you think of its role as bringing an artist closer to the eye of God? How do we as readers “see” the scenes, and the paintings, described in this unillustrated novel?
- The collective craft and creativity of a workshop is perhaps less familiar to readers used to the strong tradition of individual creative genius often celebrated in recent Western history, “the great composer” or “the great sculptor.” And yet there are many examples of workshops and styles in Western culture: the creators of Gothic cathedrals, furniture makers in colonial New England, graffiti artists in Los Angeles are just three examples. Renaissance artists themselves often had workshops in which their assistants would complete their works under their direction. How might the challenges of changing styles the artists in the novel face play out in a contemporary workshop?
Discussion Prompts to Encourage Critical Thinking
- My Name Is Red is a work of historical fiction, a sometimes denigrated genre that author Henry James described as “fatally cheap” (a quote cited by Orhan Pamuk himself in lectures). Pamuk actually first began the novel in a contemporary setting and changed it to a historical setting only after that false start, and has noted that, “history is an excuse for talking about today in a disguised form and to see the problems differently.” How do the concerns of the novel resonate with the period in which the novel was written, 1990-1992 and 1994-98, the dates Pamuk specifies in the novel? Could the novel have been set in those years? What might have changed?
- In the center of the book, the story of Sheikh Muhammad the Master of Isfahan is retold. Turning on his work, the master burned his library to destroy his art, and spent years hunting down his own works to eliminate them. Yet even after the originals were destroyed, he discovered that generations of artists had adopted the models of the art he had renounced. “Over long years, as we gaze at book after book and illustration after illustration, we come to learn the following: A great painter does not content himself by affecting us with his masterpieces, he succeeds in changing the landscape of our minds.” Western readers are more likely to imagine the ideal of painting as growing out of the traditions of the Venetian artists and the Renaissance. Is that how a reader in Iran or Afghanistan would see the book? How can we enter into the world of the characters in the novel, for whom the Italian art is new in a shocking and modern way?
- In a broader sense, history relates that many aspects of culture and identity—sometimes of a whole people—are destroyed over centuries of political, religious, and cultural upheaval, certainly a truth of Pamuk’s era and region. What does it mean that what lasts is the “changed landscape of our minds”? Many of the works in Invitation to World Literature, from Gilgamesh onward, are an artifact of a changed landscape. In the context of the themes of the novel, what does it mean for a literary work to endure in this way?
- Early in the book, Elegant Effendi says this story couldn’t be illustrated, and yet an illustrated version of the book has now been created in conjunction with the Chinese edition, published in a culture with its own rich tradition of illustrated books. Could an English illustrated edition be created? Could this novel be turned into a film? What would be gained or lost? Who would star in the film?
Unit 1 The Epic of Gilgamesh
The first known human story is that of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. Images of artifacts from ancient Iraq mix with beautiful illustrations, dance, and costume to tell of the relations between gods and mortals, the search for friendship, love, and immortality. Featured cast members include Assyriologist Ben Foster, comic book illustrator Jim Starlin, and poet and playwright Yusef Komunyakaa.
Unit 2 My Name Is Red
Both an historical novel and a graphic murder mystery set among the miniaturists of the Ottoman court. With its focus on Istambul, a major crossroads of the world, it tells of the artistic/cultural contest between Europe and the East. Cast members include the book's Nobel-prize winning author, Orhan Pamuk, and its English translator, Erdağ Göknar.
Unit 3 The Odyssey
Odysseus must travel the known and unknown world before he can return home to his beloved island kingdom of Ithaca. What does this ancient story say to readers today? In this program, Odysseus's story is given ancient and modern historical and philosophical context, and illustrated with centuries of art. Featured are theater director Mary Zimmerman, actor-director Tim Blake-Nelson, and psychologist/author Jonathan Shay.
Unit 4 The Bacchae
The city of Thebes is torn apart by the conflicting demands of reason and religion, as the disguised god Dionysus returns to his home town demanding to be worshipped. Opposing him is the young king Pentheus, who is doomed to suffer the ultimate punishment for his disbelief. Featured speakers include world-renowned playwright/author Wole Soyinka, actor Alan Cumming, and Daniel Mendelsohn of Bard College.
Unit 5 The Bhagavad Gita
This epic tale of the warrior-prince Arjuna confronting a life-or-death dilemma during civil war presents a unique and powerful philosophy of duty, discipline, and serving a higher purpose. Beautiful illustrations connect the story with its rich history and culture. Featured speakers include Sheldon Pollock, Professor of Sanskrit Studies and acclaimed composer Philip Glass.
Unit 6 The Tale of Genji
This portrait of court life in medieval Japan follows the life and exploits of the great Genji. Written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady of the Japanese court, it provides an insider's view of Japanese court life, the official and behind the screen. Art, clothing, music from the time of the novel illustrate the obserations of authors Jane Smiley and Chiori Miyagawa, among others.
Unit 7 Journey to the West
The powerful and mischievous Stone Monkey King brings chaos to heaven and earth. Freed from a mountain prison in order to guard a Chinese monk on his journey to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures from India, Monkey seeks his own spiritual transformation. Modern performance, contemporary art, and Buddhist philosophers provide a rich context to the ancient tale. Featured cast members include playwright David Henry Huang, storyteller Diane Wolkstein, and translator Professor Anthony Yu.
Unit 8 Popol Vuh
The Mayan book of creation, the dawn of life, and the glories of gods and kings. This magnificent epic was saved from destruction at the hands of the Spanish by Quiché chroniclers. Once repressed, the story is now interwoven with the history of today's Mayan people. Featured speakers include archaeologist Richard Hanson, humorist Mo Rocca, and Guatemalan artist Shuni Giron.
Unit 9 Candide
A satirical novel following the travails of Candide, a hopeless optimist whose faith in his tutor's mantra that his is "the best of all possible worlds" is tested beyond all limits. Voltaire's challenge to the aristocracy of his day proves refreshingly amusing and biting today. Original illustrations, songs, and comic book figures plumb the depths of this satire. Featured speakers include director Harold Ramis, actress Kristin Chenoweth, and cartoonist Chris Ware.
Unit 10 Things Fall Apart
In this foundational modern African novel, Chinua Achebe's story follows the lives of people trying to understand which belief systems deserve their loyalty. The protagonist, Okonkwo is a tribal leader who battles neighboring villages, the English, and his own demons in early colonial Nigeria. The perspectives of readers from around the world reveal the novel's universal themes. Cast members include playwright and professor Tess Onwueme and theater director Chuck Mike.
Unit 11 One Hundred Years of Solitude
Gabriel García Márquez's multigenerational saga of the Buendía family in the isolated town of Macondo inaugurated the boom in Latin American literature in the 1970s and marked the beginning of magical realism. Writer Sandra Cisneros and scholar of Latin American literature, Ilan Stavans lend their thoughts and voices to the discussion of this epic novel.
Unit 12 The God of Small Things
Fraternal twins Rahel and Estha struggle to reclaim their lives after their childhood is destroyed by tragic circumstances. As past and present merge in this narrative of Indian society and politics, the many layers of the caste system are mirrored in the poetic and inventive language of the author. Featured speakers include Simon Gikandi of Princeton University, author Evelyn Ch'ien.
Unit 13 The Thousand and One Nights
Shahrazad must hold the interest of her despotic husband the sultan with nightly tales, lest she lose her life in the morning. This wellspring of storytelling, circulating from medieval Persia to Egypt to Iraq, like its wily raconteur lives on in many modern adaptations. Art, performance, and film images are employed to show the collection's broad span of influence. Featured speakers include Marin Alsop, musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Aly Jetha and Shabnam Rezai, co-producers of the 1001 Nights animated series.