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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.