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.




The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

If I had known what this book was about I probably wouldn’t have put it on my list.  However, I am happy I’ve read it, after all.  At least the knowledge that I missed it while in college won’t weigh on my conscience any longer.

The positive things about The Jungle are, obviously, the writing style, which is great, and makes the experience of reading about extremely unpleasant material not only bearable, but actually enjoyable; the immense work that went into researching the subject, and of course, the reforms in the meat packing industry, which followed publication of this book.  I read that the author actually worked undercover for a meatpacking company for seven weeks to get a better understanding of what was it actually like.  I am sure he also read Das Kapital as well for the final chapters…

The book details the miserable life of the family of Lithuanian immigrants in Chicago in the early twentieth century.  Whoever can work, is working in the meatpacking factory in different capacities.  Whoever can’t, is biding their time until they grow up or get their health back and start working.  And no matter what these people do, they can’t get above the poverty line.  Everything is going bad for them.  If they get but a moment of respite, you, the reader, can be sure it will turn into ashes in the next chapter.  I can count less than five positive moments in the whole book.  Now, I am not a person, who is only reading novels with a happy ending, or avoids negative subjects.  I was a teacher of Russian Literature, for heaven’s sake, depression is my dear friend and comrade (a nod to Upton Sinclaire, as it might be), but even in Dostoyevsky’s novels the narrative doesn’t consist solely of tears, deaths and betrayals.  I guess in 1905 negativity was called realism.

The main characters, Jurgis and Ona, are extremely likable, so reading about all the horrible things that befall them over the course of this exercise in misery and futility called life really pained me.  From the moment they arrived to America everything is going wrong for them.  You might ask why a bunch of village people, who lived on their farms in the woods of Lithuania all their lives and have no other skills except working the land and raising the cattle thought they can make it in the big city like Chicago without knowing the language and understanding the rules of the new country.  It’s not like they were starving back home.  Life wasn’t easy for them, of course, but they could at least put some thought into their future before immigrating.  Believe me, I know all about immigration, having gone through similar trials and tribulations.  As it was, they condemned themselves to the life of unskilled workforce, which is not pretty in any time period.  For me, the premise was a little shaky.  The love story between Jurgis and Ona is very touching, but it adds very little humanity to the book.  It’s first and foremost a socialist pamphlet, and I’ve read enough of those in the University back in Ukraine.

I felt that I couldn’t relate to most of the characters, mainly because the reader doesn’t get to see the inner workings of their minds.  Events take precedence over the inner world in The Jungle.  The only person, whose inner monologue we can kind of follow, is Jurgis, and even for him, it’s hit or miss.  I couldn’t shake off the feeling that his mantra “I will work harder” was later repeated by Boxer in Animal Farm by George Orwell, with even more depressing results.

As a matter of fact, all the while I was reading The Jungle, I felt that Animal Farm was written partially in response to it.  Socialist revolution, hailed in The Jungle as the ultimate salvation of the working people, which revitalized beaten down Jurgis to the point of becoming human again, makes the full circle in Animal Farm, which was written 40 years later and had the benefit of following actual history of building a socialist society in Russia, subsequent to revolution of 1917.  I think a parallel study of these two books would be a great idea.  Obviously meatpacking industry of the nineteen hundreds wasn’t an ideal place, and the reforms that were passed by Congress after the release of The Jungle are the proof of it, but I wonder whether it would occur to Upton Sinclair, that if he was living in the socialist society, his book would never even get published.  The fact that the public and Congress have reacted to this novel could never have happened in the Soviet Union or in its satellite countries of Eastern Europe.  Graft, attributed by Sinclaire to capitalist way of life was so endemic in the socialist society, it would put Scully to shame. Such is the irony of the world.

I think I don’t want to talk or think about this book anymore.  The best I can say about it is that it was very influential in its time and it hasn’t aged well.

On to My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, an old friend, which I can’t wait to read again!

One Fine Day

Yesterday was a great day, but filled with mixed emotions, which is what happens in my family when we spontaneously make plans in the morning and have enough perseverance to actually follow them.  My son wanted to see a Broadway show, so we ended up seeing Fiddler on the Roof, after scoring tickets in the TKTS booth on Times Square.  This was my second time seeing this show, since my daughter wanted to go in February, and at that time my son was not so inclined.  The show was great.  Broadway shows and plays always are.  At least the ones I’ve seen so far.  However, this one takes a special place in my heart.

You see, I was born in the city where Sholem Aleichem lived for a long time.  When I read his books (not in Yiddish, alas!), I could relate to every single place he mentioned, every small village, every city.  Not all the villages in his books really existed, of course, but if you know one, you know them all.  His books are about the vanished world of little downtrodden Jews, their small businesses and great dreams.  In the pre-revolutionary Russia Jews couldn’t live in certain places.  They were scattered behind Pale of Settlement in shtetls (little villages), and could move no further into the country.  Even within the Pale they were prohibited from living in certain cities.  My husband’s family is hailing from one of those shtetls, my family is from another.  So Anatevka is not a mythical place for me.  But it’s not home either, because when I was born this world almost ceased to exist already.

All Sholem Aleichem’s books have a peculiar delicate quality to them.  They are filled with such self-deprecating humor, tender love and appreciation of little fragile things that make people happy, that by the time I make it to the end of the book, I am crying like a fool.  I always felt that a disproportionate number of his novels deal with unhappy life of truly talented people.  It’s always unfair when a great artist is not appreciated by his peers and it’s downright tragic when a great talent is exploited by the selected few for selfish or pecuniary reasons.  This unsettling theme is present in Yosele Solovey, Stempenu and Wondering Stars, and I think I see a whiff of it in Tevye the Milkman (on which Fiddler on the Roof is based) as well.

The show follows most of the book pretty close, bar the ending, which is so dismal, that would definitely turn joyous musical into a tearjerker.  My husband and yours truly ended up crying anyway.  As we were letting the human current take us to our car, I was thinking about why exactly did we cry.  Maybe it was because of the heartbreaking departure from Anatevka.  Or did we spill our tears for poor Hodl and Perchik, who were believing in revolution with such a passion, and probably died in Gulag for their troubles in its aftermath?  Or maybe they were for Hava and Fed’ka, the star crossed lovers, rejected by the family and pushed into the same bloodbath of revolution because of this rejection?  Were we crying because we knew what would befall these people one more time in 20 years?  The little people, forced from their tiny houses in that inhospitable corner of the world, and sent adrift like goose feathers from the despoiled pillows, would ultimately be building their new lives in America, Israel, Germany or Poland.  And nowhere they would be safe.

My favorite moment of that show was at the very end, when Lazer-Wolf the butcher seemingly forgave Tevye for the sticky situation with Tseitl and surreptitiously hid some money among brick-a-bracks in the wagon that contained the life of the family of five.  I don’t think this moment is in the book, but it fits the message of both the book and the show: no matter what our differences are, we are in it together, and we will help each other with whatever little we’ve got, because no one else will.

I guess we were crying because of ultimate goodness of human nature…