Murder in Miniature

By Updike, John | The New Yorker, September 3, 2001 | Go to article overview

Murder in Miniature


Updike, John, The New Yorker


Orhan Pamuk is a fifty-year-old Turk frequently hailed as his country's foremost novelist. He is both avant-garde and best-selling. His eminence, like that of the Albanian Ismail Kadare, looms singularly; Western culture-consumers, it may be, don't expect Turkey and Albania to produce novelists at all--at least, novelists so wise in the ways of modernism and postmodernism. Pamuk, the grandson of a wealthy factory director and railroad builder, has been privileged to write without needing to make a living by it. From a family of engineers, he studied engineering, architecture, and journalism, and practiced none of them. Until the age of thirty, he lived with his parents, writing novels that did not get published. When literary success dawned, he married, and now, living in Istanbul with his wife and daughter, he composes, according to an interview he gave Publishers Weekly in 1994, from eleven at night till four in the morning and again, after arising at noon, from two in the afternoon till eight. The results have been prodigious: six novels that recapitulate in Turkish the twentieth-century novel's major modes. His first, "Cevdet Bey and His Sons," was likened to Thomas Mann's "Buddenbrooks"; his next, "The Silent House," a multiply narrated week of family interaction, suggested to critics Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner; his third, "The White Castle," a creepy seventeenth-century tale of double identity, evoked comparison to Borges and Calvino; the fourth, "The Black Book," a missing-persons adventure saturated in details of Istanbul, was written, by Pamuk's own admission, with Joyce's "Ulysses" in mind; the fifth, "The New Life," a dreamlike first-person contemporary tale, was described by a reviewer as "Kafka with a light touch"; and the sixth, "My Name Is Red" (translated from the Turkish by Erdag Goknar; Knopf; $25.95), a murder mystery set in sixteenth-century Istanbul, uses the art of miniature illumination, much as Mann's "Doctor Faustus" did music, to explore a nation's soul.

"My Name Is Red" weighs in, with its appended chronology, at more than four hundred big pages and belongs, in its high color and scholarly density, with other recent novels that load extensive book learning onto a detective-story plot: A. S. Byatt's "Possession" and Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose" and "Foucault's Pendulum." One worries, with such ambitious flights, whether they aren't a bit narrow-shouldered for the task--whether the rather ironically melodramatic story can carry its burden of pedantry and large import. Nineteenth-century novelists catered to a more generous, less nibbled attention span; they breathed with bigger lungs and naturally wrote long, deep, and wide. Although Pamuk demonstrates the patience and constructive ability of the nineteenth-century fabricators and their heirs Proust and Mann, his instinctive affinity lies with the relatively short-winded Calvino and Borges, philosophical artificers of boxes within boxes. Pamuk's boxes are bigger, but the toylike feeling persists, of craftsmanship exulting in its powers, of giant gadgets like those with which the Europeans used to woo Turkey's sultan with evidence of Western technology.

Pamuk's ingenuity is yoked to a profound sense of enigma and doubleness. The doubleness, he has said, derives from that of Turkey itself, a nation straddling Asia and Europe and divided between the progressive "Kemalist" heritage of Kemal Ataturk's radical reforms of 1924--secularism in government, public education for all, voting rights for women, the replacement of the Arabic alphabet with the Roman one--and conservative Islam, now resurgent as a repressive, potentially violent fundamentalism from Morocco to Malaysia.

The ostensible topic of "My Name Is Red" is the threatened Westernization of Ottoman pictorial art, an offshoot, protected by Sultan Murat III (r. 1574-95), of the Persian tradition of miniature painting. To honor the thousandth anniversary (measured in lunar years) of the Hegira, which occurred in 622 A. …

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