What’s in a Name?

This is a review of ‘My Name is Black’ by Orhan Pamuk.

Let me begin by stating that I love this book.  This is my second time reading it, and it still seems to retain the original beauty and mystery upon rereading.

This amazing mystery novel is taking place in the 16th century Istanbul, where a miniaturist (actually a master guilder) has been killed by an unknown perpetrator.  We immediately gather, though, that the murderer is one of the victim’s co-workers, so to speak, another master from the same workshop.  The narrative is broken into separate stories, each told from a different prospective by a different character.  Some of them are told in a voice of a picture, drawn by one of the miniaturists, who are potentially implicated in the murder; one of them is told by a corpse, and some of them are told by the murderer himself, who the author is daring us to identify.

It can be considered a hermetic mystery, although the suspects are not locked up in the same house.  They are, nevertheless, bound to each other and the locale by the rules of their trade and by the sense of impeding doom.  The doom is brought by the different style of painting – the Frankish style, which is slowly reaching the Ottoman empire and infiltrating the painters’ minds.  I feel that we, the people of European culture, cannot adequately appreciate the battle the characters are fighting.  Their whole world is coming to a halt because of introduction of the portraiture into their lives.  While thousands of Islamic miniaturists faithfully copied pictures, created by the great masters before them, and eliminated any indication of a personal style or likeness to real people, the Frankish painters celebrated the difference of style, colors and subjects.  When I try to think what it must have meant to the old Master Osman, who spent his whole life following the lead of the old masters of Herat, never wavering from predetermined path and prescribed arrangements to find out that the Sultan has surreptitiously ordered a book done in Frankish style, it makes my heart ache for him.  Thus, the main conflict of this book is not between the murderer and the victim – it’s actually between East and West, the old style and progress, Renaissance and medieval traditions.

Everything was foreign and difficult to understand for me in this book:  the feelings between Shekure and Black; preoccupation with blindness among the miniaturists; the way the characters said one thing, while actually meaning something completely opposite, and everybody knew it and understood everything correctly; the real fear of developing an individual style of painting; and even the way the murderer was finally identified by the way he drew a horse.  The main female protagonist, Shekure, seems very conceited and dishonest, but it’s totally possible that I misinterpret her actions, since I don’t have a frame of reference to judge them by.  Black, the main character, is the only one, who I kind of understand, because he seems to say what he thinks and is true to his word.  I loved he complexity of his feelings when he is torn between mourning for his Enishte, love and desire for Shekure, and fear of the Sultan’s wrath upon learning that the book that he commissioned from Enishte Effendi is not going to be completed, pictures are stolen, money spent, and two masters from his workshop are dead in the process.

The book invites comparison to ‘The Name of the Rose’ by Umberto Eco, not only because of the title, but also because of striking similarities of the content.  In both books the murders happen in the painters’ workshops and have powerful religious undertones, in both books the killer seeks to stop the progress of thoughts and ideas through elimination of the people, who are curious and like to learn something new; and in both books the person, who actually commits the murders does it out of fear that the life as they knew it is vanishing fast, and they feel that they need to protect whatever is left of it.  I’d love to go into the comparative analysis of these two books, but am afraid that the blog is not a proper place for it 🙂

When I was re-reading this book, I was puzzled by the fact that I didn’t actually remember who the killer was.  How was this possible?  I remembered the kind of soup Esther cooked for her supper (lentil), the name of the slave girl that belonged to Shekure (Hayriye), and the color of Hasan’s sword (red, of course), but the main thing of every mystery novel – the name of the murderer – was lost.  I think it’s because the suspects were so consciously devoid of the individuality, that any one of them could’ve committed the murder under proper circumstances. Yes, they were different human beings, but they had more things in common, than the things that set them apart.  When they had to drew a horse upon the Sultan’s request, all 3 of them drew it in a way that did not reflect who they were, but rather, whose style of painting each of them followed.

In conclusion I just want to add that to me this book represents the triumph of individuality over the masses.  I think this is why Black was melancholy until his dying day – he was fighting the same battle inside his head as his Enishte, and wasn’t sure that celebrating each person’s uniqueness is the right thing according to Koran.




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