my name is redJune 2007

Every so often we decide to step outside our comfort zone and stretch our imaginations (and minds) with something more challenging. This month we chose My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish author who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006.

On the face of it the book is a murder mystery, interwoven with a beguiling love story. But it transcends the conventional limitations of genre to chronicle the difference in perceptions between East and West and also, to present us with a brilliant symposium on the power of art. We are transported to sixteenth century Istanbul, where the Sultan has commissioned a great book celebrating the glories of his realm and 1000 years of Islam. He has tasked the city’s acclaimed miniaturist artists to illuminate the work in the European style but because figurative art can be deemed an affront to Islam, the commission is dangerous and must be carried out in secrecy. It is the author’s render ing of the intense life of artists negotiating the perilous sharp edge of Islam at this time that elevates this book to the rank of modern classic.

We are drawn into the strange and beautiful world of Islamic art, in which Western notions no longer make sense. The story is told by each of a dozen characters and also by a dog, a tree, a gold coin, several querulous corpses and the colour crimson (hence the book’s enigmatic title). The book appears to be constructed like the minia turist paintings the author describes in such detail. There is a repetitive nature to the various myths and tales that colour the background to the plot, but they also anchor the book within the tradition of local narrative.

Pamuk acts as a bridge between our own culture and that of an eaually rich heritage and highlights the paradox that precedes our modern-day feuds between secularism and fundamentalism. In the process he himself emerges as an accomplished hybrid artist, able to draw on Eastern and Western traditions with equal ease and flair. He is apparently the best-selling novelist in Turkish history and it is encouraging that in the modern age of global terrorism that an author emerges who is unafraid to examine the ‘two souls’ of his nation -conservative Islamic and liberal European. He is seen as a traitor by many Islamists and suffers persecution as a consequence but he continues to live in Turkey and long may his humanity speak out to celebrate diversity and encour age dialogue.

Our group is having a break now until September, when we meet on the 13th to discuss The Butterfly House.

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