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Invitation to World Literature

My Name Is Red My Name Is Red – Getting Started

Istanbul

Among the Painters

Art, religion, love, and death: My Name Is Red draws you into the world of sixteenth-century Istanbul, a world of painters at a crossroads, living in a golden age of Islamic art in the Ottoman Empire, and encountering the heart of the Western Renaissance in Italy. A story of love, of murder, and of how style, identity, tradition, and the modern speak, affecting how a painter will make a single identifying mark―one line of a horse’s nostril, for instance―and how civilizations meet and change one another.

Orhan Pamuk:

“Historical novels are, I think, are about the age they were written. History is an excuse for talking about today in a disguised form and to see the problems differently.”

Basic Timeline

CE

c. 570-632

Life of Muhammad, founder of the religion of Islam.

13th Century-1923

Span of the Ottoman Empire.

1518-1594

Life of Tintoretto, one of the masters of the Venetian Renaissance School in painting.

1520-1566

Süleyman the Magnificent is Sultan of Turkey, extending the empire and consolidating its place as the dominant power in the region. His reign spurred a period of great artistic achievement.

1571

The Battle of Lepanto, a naval battle on the Greek coast between Ottoman and Christian forces over control of the eastern Mediterranean. The Turkish forces were defeated, and the battle became the subject for Venetian painters including Veronese.

1591

Timeframe of My Name Is Red.

1952

Birth of Orhan Pamuk.

1998

Turkish Publication of My Name Is Red.

2001

English translation published.

2006

Orhan Pamuk receives the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Background

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.

Language

The novel is written in Turkish.

Characters

Black

A miniaturist, who returns to Istanbul at the beginning of the period of the novel. Black had been the apprentice of Enishte Effendi, whose daughter, Shekure, he has loved since childhood.

Butterfly, Olive, and Stork

Three miniaturists, who, like Elegant, worked on the mysterious book; they are each murder suspects.

Elegant Effendi

(Effendi is a title of honor) A master miniaturist; his voice (as a murdered corpse) speaks the first words heard in the novel; the discovery of his murderer is a central action of the book.

Enishte Effendi

(Beloved Uncle) An artist who directs the creation of a mysterious commission for the Sultan, a book in the style of Italian painters, which he knows from travel to Venice. The final page of Enishte Effendi’s book is missing.

Erzurumis

A fundamentalist religious sect.

Esther

A Jewish peddler, and romantic go-between, who passes messages between characters, including notes to and from Shekure.

Master Osman

Head of the sultan’s painting workshop, or atalier, a master miniaturist and key detective in finding the stylistic clues that can disclose the identity of the murderer. A rival of Enishte Effendi.

Shekure

Enishte Effendi’s daughter, whom Black pursues. Before the period of the book, Shekure has married a soldier and had two sons, Shevket and Orhan. Her husband has not returned from war; at the beginning of the book she is living unhappily in the house of her husband’s brother, Hassan.

Storyteller

A café regular who tells tales that poke fun at, among other targets, fundamentalist religion.

Recommended Translations & Editions

Editions

Glossary

Bihzad (or Behzad) (c. 1460-1535)

(also known as Kamal al din Bihzad) A master Persian miniaturist whose art influenced painters around the Islamic world. Like Master Osman in the novel, Bihzad was the master of a painting workshop or atelier. He trained apprentices and directed the style and execution of many other miniaturists’ work. Bizad was born and worked in Herat, in modern-day Afghanistan.

Black

An artist who has returned to Constantinople, after previously being sent away for his childhood confessions of love for Shekure. His pursuit of her, and his relationship with Elegant Effendi, who draws him into the creation of the book, are central elements of the novel.

Book of Kings or Shahnameh

The epic poem Shahnameh was compiled and written down by the Persian poet Firdausi and published around 1000, after thirty years’ effort. Its recounting of the mythic and historical origins of Persia has been a foundation for many later works of literature, illustrated books, and other art works. Several of the tales referred to in My Name Is Redcome from the Book of Kings, and the mysterious book that is being created for the Sultan is likened to it.

Bosporus

The Strait of Bosporus is the narrow body of water that Istanbul staddles; considered the dividing line between Europe and Asia, it separates the Black Sea from the Mediterranean Sea.

Butterfly

One of the three artists asked to work on the mysterious book; a murder suspect.

Constantinople/Istanbul

Setting of the novel and historical center of the Ottoman Empire.

Elegant Effendi

The artist responsible for the gilding of the mysterious book. He is concerned about the book, including the final illustration in an individualistic Venetian style, which troubles him. His voice (as a corpse) is the first in the novel, and the story is animated by the mystery of who killed him.

Enishte Effendi

(Beloved Uncle) An artist who directs the creation of a mysterious commission for the Sultan, a book in the style of Italian painters, which he knows from travel to Venice. The final page of Enishte Effendi’s book is missing.

Esther

A Jewish peddler, go-between, and match maker. Esther carries (and reads) notes between Hasan and Shekure, but later supports Shekure’s design to evade Hasan.

Frame Story

A narrative that introduces another narrative within it: a story within a story. Frame stories are used explicitly or evoked many times in My Name Is Red, for instance when the storyteller relates stories at the coffee house, or figures from the novel discuss and embody stories and points of view of earlier historical figures (for instance, Bizhad.) The courtship of Black and Shekure is directly likened to the older tale of Husrev and Shirin.

Hasan

Shekure’s brother-in-law, who may take his place as her husband if his brother is truly dead. Shekure has been living in Hasan’s house, but moves to her father’s home, where Hasan sends her notes via Esther.

Husrev and Shirin

(also known as Khosrow and Shirin) The main characters of a Persian love story that is retold in the novel, which parallels the love of Shekure and Black. Husrev and Shirin’s story is the subject of many miniatures. In the book, Black has created his own painting of the story with his name and Shekure’s written underneath each character.

Master Osman

Head of the Sultan’s painting workshop, or atelier, a master miniaturist and key detective in finding the stylistic clues that can disclose the identity of the murderer, Master Osman is a rival of Enishte Effendi.

Nizami (c. 1140-1210)

A Persian poet whose masterpiece The Five Jewels is a foundation for romantic epics in Middle Eastern literature, and includes the stories of Husrev and Shirin and of Leyla and Majnun, both echoed and referred to in My Name Is Red.

Nusret Hoja

A religious figure whom the storyteller ridicules. Nusret Hoja and the sect he leads, the Erzurumis, are opposed to modern practices and innovations. Their fundamentalism extends to opposition to innovation in paintings and their attacks on the café storyteller turn violent.

Olive

One of the miniaturists, also aspiring to marry Shekure.

Ottoman Empire

Established c. 1300, the Ottoman Empire at its height encompassed major regions in Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe, a reach that extended around the Mediterranean from Algiers nearly to Vienna, and as far east as northern India. The apogee of the Ottoman Empire is the first half of the 16th century; by the time of the novel, 1591, increasingly successful military challenges to the empire, as well as internal conflicts, were creating great pressures to change. The Ottoman Empire ended with the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923.

Safavid Empire

A Persian dynasty, dominant in the Middle East from 1501-1736. Military conflict between Safavid and Ottoman forces are taking part during the period of the book.

Shekure

Enishte Efendi’s daughter, whom Black pursues. Before the period of the book, Shekure has married a soldier and had two sons, Shevket and Orhan. Her husband has not returned from war, and at the beginning of the book she is reluctantly living in the house of her husband’s brother, Hasan.

Stork

A miniaturist, and a murder suspect. He aspires to become head of the illustrators and leader of a workshop.

Sultan Murat III (1567-1603)

(or Murad III) An actual historical figure who presided over the Ottoman Empire during the period of the book. The novel portrays Sultan Murat as commissioning creation of a secret book in the Western style. This fictional book has a real precedent: Sultans did have communication and relationships with Western artists, sitting for portraits by Venetian painters and employing Western artists—to later controversy—to decorate parts of Ottoman palaces.

Workshop

(also school or atelier) A term used to define a group of artists who, often under the guidance of a master, create artworks that reflect a common approach, heritage, and artistic style. The term may be more loosely used to describe a group of artists who have a characteristic in common, but who do not work together. In the novel, Master Osman’s workshop includes direct instruction and apprenticeship in a specific style; this is in accordance with schools of painting associated with varieties of Middle Eastern and Asian art.

Venetian School

The Venetian school refers generally to artists who worked within the emerging realistic style of portraiture and perspective established by fifteenth and sixteenth century painters working in Venice, including Bellini, Titan, Tintoretto, and Veronese among many others.

Series Directory

Invitation to World Literature

Credits

Produced by the WGBH Educational Foundation with Seftel Productions. 2010.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-892-0

Units