A murdered corpse speaks from the bottom of a well, recounting to us the circumstances of its death, the life-work it has had to forfeit and its passionate hope of vengeance. This opening address from My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk's novel of art and love, religious conflict and conspiracy, must have been unsettling to its Turkish readers, spoken across the void of time from the year 999 of the Muslim Hegira (that's 1591 to us).
Now translated from the Turkish for American readers, the corpse-voice, and all the many voices which follow it, are doubly disconcerting, for the things they speak of are so strange, so literally foreign. The author casts us headlong into a world where the Sultan of the powerful Ottoman Empire spends his fantastical wealth largely on the creation of beautifully illuminated books, the labor of many artists, each contributing his highly specialized talent. The corpse at the bottom of the well had been the Sultan's master gilder.
With Pamuk's arabesque of narrative voices guiding us - non-human ones as well, including dog, tree and gold coin - we wander the labyrinth of Istanbul and sit in its coffeehouses, listening to the Sultan's artists who moonlight as storytellers. Absolutely obligatory is the drinking of coffee, the taste and salutary qualities of which have never been as gleefully celebrated as in this novel. At every turn, we are shown that timeless art belongs to the rush and pulse of unruly time.
If there is a hero in the novel - which enjoyed the largest print run in Turkish publishing history - it is not a principal person, but rather an artistic principle, a potential synthesis between Eastern and Western ways of representing the world. But the wedding between East and West, real or imagined, is never a comfortable one. When the tree speaks, it speaks darkly of two cultures at odds with each other, and we must bear in mind that it is not an actual tree, but a beautiful illustration in a book. "I don't want to be a tree," says the tree, scorning the realism of Western landscape painting. "I want to be its meaning." If Pamuk's novel could speak, it might express the very same wish about the lives it tells.
Michael Alec Rose teaches at Vanderbilt University's Blair School of Music.