‘I am a corpse’ – thus begins the first chapter of ‘My Name Is Red’, the narrator is a dead man called Elegant Effendi, informing the writer of how he was murdered, however, he refuses to reveal the identity of the criminal. To call ‘My Name Is Red’ by Orhan Pamuk a murder-mystery is an over-simplification. But to be able to fit it under one simple genre isn’t easy either.

For those not familiar with the history of the Ottoman empire and its art, “My Name Is Red” is a rich look at the artistic process and how master miniaturists treat their work as holy service. Through this novel, Orhan gives us a glimpse into the lives of some of the most talented (fictional) Ottoman miniature artists of the 16th century and their resistance against the influence of the Venetian school of painting. Elegant Effendi, the corpse who kicks of the story-telling, is also an artist. It is revealed that Elegant along with a three other master-artists was working under Enishte Effendi, a much older artisan, who was commissioned to write/illustrate a book for the ruling Shah. Elegant begins to accuse Enishte of blasphemy, because the old man was infusing elements of the Venetian school of art in their traditional Ottoman paintings. Fearing that Elegant could get them all persecuted, somebody murders him. But who? The readers are given elaborate accounts of the lives and thoughts of the three-artists who are the prime suspects in the murder case, and yet, it’s hard for the reader to pin down the guilty party till the end with a 100% confidence.

For the first few chapters, the novel is interesting enough, with the narrator constantly changing. It’s nice that there are multiple POVs – you have different men and women carrying the story forward through their perspective of things, you even have the corpse recount his death, then a dog, but chapter 10 is where this novelty of multiple narrator gets extremely boring – where a tree is whining about its existence. Well, it’s not entirely a lament, but whatever the tree has to say is sleep-inducing. Here’s the funniest thing about the tree chapter, the tree asks the readers to drink coffee and keep their eyes open for what it has to say – I did guzzle down a big glass of cold-coffee & still found it hard to keep my interest up. Although, eventually, the tree does begin to reveal intriguing things.

Pamuk through this novel explores his Turkish roots and gives readers a rich glimpse into the beliefs of his land. The most interesting thing for me as a reader was how a lot of Muslims in the 15th century considered drinking coffee sinful. There’s an amusing anecdote (probably fictional) in the book about how the Persian Shah Tahmasp had given up coffee, here’s the quote –

the Persian Shah Tahmasp, who was the archenemy of the Ottomans as well as the world’s greatest patron-king of the art of painting, began to grow senile and lost his enthusiasm for wine, music, poetry and painting; furthermore, he quit drinking coffee, and naturally, his brain stopped working.

Excerpt from ‘My Name Is Red’

There’s also lot of latent homosexual undertones that readers can see through the text. It’s an interesting change, because through the story, both men and women are objectified. Pamuk through his text illustrates that when powerful men want to exploit lower beings, they don’t necessarily discriminate between genders.

The novel is not relatable at all, and even though it won’t be hard to write a dozen sentences for each characters, nobody really stood out in the book. Everyone has their grey shades, although a character called ‘Black’ is made out to be more of a hero than the rest. The romance brewing between Black and Enishte Effendi’s daughter would seem like the primary plot for many. So Pamuk really covers it all – we have a love story to root for and a murder mystery to solve at the same time. The greatest achievement of this book is how despite having almost a dozen narrators, the story moves forward in a linear fashion, without confusing the reader.

But the narration gets too tedious and some narrators weren’t needed at all. For readers who want a pacy, fast-moving novel, “My Name Is Red” can be very challenging. It’s quite clear that the author has done a painful amount of research for the book, and seems to want to incorporate as much as he can into the story, but reading the ‘information overload’ can become a painful experience for some readers.

For art & history enthusiasts, there’s always something interesting that comes up in the book. But Pamuk could’ve chopped off some 50 pages. It’s a 3/5 from me.

Listen to episode 51 where we talk about Ottoman art beliefs as shown in ‘My Name Is Red’

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