Orhan Pamuk’s novel Benim Adım Kırmızı (My Name is Red, 1998) needs no introduction. It brought its author the Nobel Prize for literature in 2006, and it is one of the incontestable masterpieces of contemporary literature. I recently re-read it and felt that I somehow understand its pervasive melancholy better now than I did before, when I read it the first time.
Those who know the novel may remember that its central tension is built around a murder mystery, which Pamuk masterfully combines with a forbidden love story and places on a late 16th century Ottoman Empire background. Pamuk’s, however, is not just a historic murder mystery. His characters in My Name is Red are miniature artists, those celebrated members of a proud guild of manuscript illustrators, who prided themselves as keepers of an ancient method of representation through painting. Pamuk captures their craft at a moment of existential crisis caused by the interaction with Western painting, where perspective and detailed realistic representation took primacy over traditional symbolism. Pamuk’s Ottoman miniaturists are contemporary with the European Renaissance and with the work of Leonardo de Vinci, Raffaello Sanzio, Sandro Boticelli, and Piero della Francesca, and their mimetic reproduction of reality, especially when it came to portraits.
Orhan Pamuk problematizes the tension between two methods of artistic representation and that crucial moment in history when they competed with each other. In the end, only one will prevail. Although the characters’ passions seem central to the plot, what really animates them is a problem that will eventually impact the whole of subsequent human history. Elegant Effendi’s murder in the very first chapter of the novel is, in fact, the death of traditional representation in painting, where tridimensional perspective and detailed portrait elements where not relevant. This will be the first battle in the long war ultimately won by Western realism and pragmatism. Kantian thought will follow, and then Marxism, and modernism. And the rest… is history.
In essence, My Name is Red is a novel about loss. As readers, we contemplate the definitive disappearance of a tradition that defined artistic representation for tens of thousands of years of human history, beginning with the drawings of the Paleolithic caves. The loss captured by Pamuk is the beginning of the identity and spiritual crisis we are still facing today. My Name is Red narrates the budding of modern consciousness.