My Name Is Red | Orhan Pamuk

My Name is Red,
by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Erdağ M. Göknar
Published by Vintage (2002)
Rating: ***** 

I’m not sure I will be able to do justice to the plot of My Name Is Red. It’s difficult to put into words. In essence, it is a murder mystery. An individual, Elegant has been murdered, and his corpse lies undiscovered at the bottom of a well. Speaking from the afterlife, he hopes that his body is found soon and that the murderer is captured.

However, Elegant is not the sole narrator through the book. Each fresh chapter introduces a new character to the story, and ends up explaining their backstory, alongwith how much they know about the murder of Elegant. As we learn more about the motives for murder, so we learn about the motives behind art, and the possibilities of its interpretation.

Pamuk’s consistency with exploring the blurring of lines in the confluence between the East and the West continues here as well. Each narrator, though modernist, has an intriguing take on the value and role of art in a person’s life. So too, does each narrator have a perspective on whom the likely murderer is. Pamuk unravels the plot slowly, allowing for these philosophical discussions and beliefs to be exposed in as nuanced a manner as possible. Pamuk manages to portray the 16th century world, full of its own contradictions, and capture it in a manner that is wholesome and enjoyable.

However, if you are reading Pamuk purely for the murder mystery – this might not live up to your expectations. There’s barely any distinction drawn in the likelihood that one of the narrators may have murdered elegant, which leaves room for a lot of doubt, and a lot of tension, one that Pamuk diffuses in a manner that isn’t all that appreciable. The narratives is skewed and feels heavily-strung together.

As a result, Pamuk’s novel gets 5-stars on its value as a text and its contribution to my understanding of ideas that it presents – lucid, simplistic, and detailed. However, as a pure literary text, my jury will have to wait for a re-read. Or multiple re-reads.

Snow | Orhan Pamuk

Snow,
by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Maureen Freely
Published by Vintage International (2005)
Rating: **** 

Snow is essential reading.

In two distinct parts, the book follows the story of Ka (the shortened form of Kar, which is “Snow” in Turkish).

The first part follows Ka’s discovery of Islam. It begins as Ka reunites with Ipek (a woman he once loved), who has recently divorced Muhtar, owing to his interest in political Islam. Ka meets Muhtar, and is introduced to Muhtar’s experience with Islam. During that meeting, he is accused, alongwith Muhtar, for a recent public shooting for which an Islamic extremist group claimed responsibility.

Ka begins to write, composing a poem, “Snow”, and several other poems. Ipek urges Ka to visit a Sheikh, and they have an astounding conversation on the value of organized religion in an individual’s life. Ka, although hesitant to accept religion – claiming it to be “backward”, chooses to accept instead, that his poetry is a gift from God – an unnamed entity. Following this interaction, Ka continues to meet people with different experiences of Islam. He meets a self-identifying Muslim radical as well as Islamic feminists.

Reflective of a newly independent Turkey, there are growing tensions between secularists and Islamists, which ends up blowing out of proportion at a televised event. The police and military impose martial law, and Ka is taking in for questioning once more. Upon his release, he meets an actor who identifies as a Turkist Republican, who ends up orchestrating – in a spectacular sequence, both a coup d’état and a coup de théâtre.

The second part deals with a denouncing of the coup. True to Pamuk, there is a post-modernism in his introduction as the narrator of the book. We fast-forward four years, and explore Turkey post-Ka’s life, and reconstruct events leading to his demise.

You’ll notice that my plot summary elaborates one part of the book far more than it does the second. This is intentional. If you’re intrigued by what the first part holds, the second part is a deeper dive into all things so related, and I would recommend reading the book to find out more.

The characters are phenomenally crafted. My usual criticism of Pamuk involves a comment on how characters are just one-dimensional individuals. But here, every single character is developed well, with backstories that keep you hooked, and motives that you find yourself questioning at every turn. There is no black-and-white, only grey, and it’s very easy to fall in love with, and hate Ka and his crew.

A truth that has been fundamental to Turkey has been its struggle with who it wishes to be, who its leaders wish to represent, and how to unite a population that has such fundamentally different beliefs. Pamuk’s reflections on this struggle is a driving force behind Snow’s plot, and is an exposition both in Turkish society, and a commentary on the ability of speech – to propagate messages of peace and unity, as well as violence.

One star is docked again for Pamuk’s staunch refusal to allow us to fully immerse ourselves in the world of his characters. Similar to the New Life, he reveals nothing of Ka’s poems – making it difficult to fully relate to Ka’s perception of the world, and more crucially, fully appreciate certain scenes that Orhan the narrator weaves for us.

However, an understanding of Western Asia would mandate a reading of Snow. And I would force it upon people as well.