I didn't put Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red (Turkish original, 1998; English translation by Erdag Goknar, 2001) in the Stack because of the amazing story of his being charged with "insulting Turkishness" in 2005 and of those charges being dropped in 2006 as Pamuk was unexpectedly awarded the Nobel Prize, largely on the basis of this book. I hadn't actually paid much attention to all that (and don't get me started on the Nobel Prize). No, it was because G. read it and liked it and as she described it to me it sounded like I'd like it too: strictly word of mouth. G. and I are book people and this is a book about books.
Specifically, it's about the fabulous illuminated manuscripts that were produced in the royal workshops of the Ottoman Sultan Murat III in the late 16th century, the twilight of a tradition of "miniaturists" producing treasures for patrons with roots in ancient China and Persia. It is a meticulously detailed historical drama about the life of these miniaturists, in the form of a murder mystery with much action and intrigue, combined with a sustained philosophical disquisition on the confrontation of this Islamic art tradition with the new naturalistic portraiture of Renaissance art from the West. These elements are woven together into a coherent piece of literature that is engrossing and masterful in several ways.
The charge of "insulting Turkishness" (granting it was provoked by Pamuk's comments about the Armenian genocide) is one of those inanities that only the truly ignorant can conjure (happens in the US all the time). The humane quality of life (family life, working life, religious life, social life) under the Muslim Ottoman Sultan is conveyed in an entirely persuasive manner (even as the routine official use of torture and execution is unflinchingly worked into the story). A deeply cultured Islamic society is portrayed where there is rich diversity, ample private life and yes, even good sex. The reader comes away with deepened respect for this 16th century world standing on the cusp of modernity (the action takes place in the 1590s, the time of Cervantes and Shakespeare).
In traditional Islamic art, portraying the world as it seen through one's own eyes was considered a blasphemy, as was naturalistic representation of specific individuals, as well as signing one's name to one's work. Art was for exalting the glory of God. Historical and Koranic scenes were portrayed in highly formalized conventions, the same iconic horse, for example, used over and over until the miniaturists worked to depict a ritualized code of images that were quite deliberately removed from the corruptions of our debased, animal experiences of sensory reality. As Ottoman elites were gradually exposed to the new representational art emanating from Venice, where the wealthy and powerful celebrated themselves in sumptuous portraits, sultans, pashas, and their illustrators were exposed to a powerful set of temptations, even as fundamentalist elements would mount attacks on any representational art at all.
An inspiration of Pamuk was to realize that this milieu provided all of the elements needed for a great classic murder mystery: you have the ambitions and rivalries of the artisans, who have histories with each other going back to their youthful apprenticeships, as well as powerful emotions about the future of the workshops and the Islamic purity or lack thereof of the various projects of the Sultan. Suspects abound.
An even greater inspiration was to see the connection between clues (to a murder) and the relation between what we see with our eyes and the truth, a central philosophical problem for late Islamic art. Blindness is more than a metaphor here, it is a real element in the lives of these artisans, the most legendary of whom were frequently claimed to have lost their sight as a consequence of a lifetime of close work. And of course a powerful, dangerous, or wicked artisan might be blinded deliberately by conquering soldiers or wrathful shahs. Thus when we have a murderer in our midst: do we want to see him? Those who have eyes to see, let them see. That's a Biblical aphorism; Pamuk's excellent novel compels me now to take the Koran down from the bookcase and follow up on some of his tantalizing references.