Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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Invitation to World Literature

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Key Teaching Points and Discussion Prompts

Characters

  1. 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?

Plot Actions

  1. 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?

Themes

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?