Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. August 2004

5.3. I First Learned about Russia from Dostoievski. Literature as an Imaginary Way of Understanding Another Country
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Peter Horn (Pretoria)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

"Nation and Narration": Cultural Interactions in Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red

Rezzan Kocaöner Silkü (*) (Ege University, Izmir, Turkey)


Being one of the well known Turkish authors, Orhan Pamuk, in an interview with Elizabeth Farnsworth, identifies himself with a "bridge... [since] a bridge doesn't belong to any continent,... [or] any civilization, [but it] has the unique opportunity to see both civilizations and be outside of it" (Farnsworth, 2). As Farnsworth says, Orhan Pamuk "works in a neighbourhood of Istanbul that lies on the edge of Bosphorus, the great waterway that divides Europe and Asia [and] knows East and West well, [since he] lived most of his life in Turkey, and ... also studied writing and literature in the United States" (1).

Catherine Hall, in White, Male and Middle Class: Explorations in Feminism and History, asserts, "Historians construct stories, stories which necessarily have a narrative shape but in which the tensions between the teller, the tropes of the discourse, and what are understood to have been the events, are consciously worked on" (1). Hence, there is no difference between a historian and a writer who use narrative strategies to express an idea in a text. In Nation and Narration, Homi Bhabha claims that nations are narrative constructions, arising from the "hybrid" interaction of cultural constituencies (2).

As Edward Said, in Orientalism, also states, "[S]uch locales, regions, geographical sectors as 'Orient' and 'Occident' are man-made...[;] therefore as much as the West itself, the Orient is an idea that has a history and a tradition of thought, imagery, and vocabulary that have given it reality..." (5). Orhan Pamuk, like a historian, weaves his novel, My Name is Red (2001), with motifs from Ottoman history and Turkish culture. Thus, the text binds the two worlds, the East and the West, and "addresses the sort of timeless, universal issues that make superb literary fiction" (Iannelli, 1). As Farnsworth further argues, "Istanbul has been the centre of both Islam and Christianity, and Pamuk's work is often about the meeting of the two" (1).

Orhan Pamuk himself states in a conversation:

I tried to tell my story... [in] two distinctive ways of seeing the world and narrating stories [which] are of course related to our cultures, histories, and what is now popularly called identities. How much are they in conflict? In my novel they even kill each other because of this conflict between east and west. But, of course, the reader, I hope, realizes that I do not believe in this conflict. All good art comes from mixing things from different roots and cultures, and I hope My Name is Red illustrates just that. (Knopf, 1)

Thus, this paper aims to discuss Pamuk's My Name is Red in the light of the dialectics between the East and the West, and re-read the text as a portrayal of Ottoman history and Turkish culture with reference to such postcolonial concepts as hybridity, in-betweenness, or double-consciousness, with regard to Bhabha's views about nation and narration, and Said's arguments on the Orient and the Occident.

In Nation and Narration, Homi Bhabha asserts, "Nations, like narratives, lose their origins in the myths of time and only fully realize their horizons in the mind's eye" (1). Bhabha further emphasizes the ambivalent nature of "the idea of the nation, [as] the language of those who write of it and the lives of those who live it" (1999, 1). Such an ambivalence also suggests a "conceptual indeterminacy" and "transitional history" in the nation-building process (Bhabha, 1999, 2). Then, the nation is regarded as "a form of narrative [with its] textual strategies, metaphoric displacements, sub-texts and figurative strategems" (Bhabha, 1999, 2). Thus, the national culture might give way to some new "alternative constituencies of peoples and oppositional analytic capacities... [like] new 'ethnicities', new social movements, [and] 'the politics of difference'... [which] assign new meanings and different directions to the process of historical change" (Bhabha, 1999, 3).

Just like Homi Bhabha who considers nation as "one of the major structures of ideological ambivalence within the cultural representations of 'modernity'" (1999, 4), Orhan Pamuk also discusses in, My Name is Red, the artistic transformations and innovations in Ottoman art as an "allegory of the Ottoman-Turkish Modernity" (Erkatip, 379). On the other hand, as Bhabha states, "cultural boundaries of the nation... [are] containing thresholds of meaning that must be crossed, erased, and translated in the process of cultural production" (1999, 4). In such "in-between" spaces, "the meanings of cultural and political authority are [to be] negotiated" (Bhabha, 1999, 4). Thus, "the anti-nationalist, ambivalent nation-space becomes the crossroads to a new transnational culture" (Bhabha, 1999, 4).

Homi Bhabha, in The Location of Culture, also states that in the modern world, identities are shaped in "the interstices [where] the intersubjective and collective experiences of nationness, community interest, or cultural value are negotiated" (2). Orhan Pamuk also tries to transgress the cultural boundaries between the East and the West by using in-betweenness as a bridge through the medium of literature. Pamuk, in one of the epigraphs to his novel My Name is Red, quotes from Koran: "To God belongs the East and the West", which suggests the unifying aspects of the eastern and western cultures (np).

In Orientalism, Edward Said states that the Orient is a "European invention... a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences" (1). Said defines "Orientalism" as a "style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between 'the Orient'... and 'the Occident'" (2). Said also asserts that the Orient "is not an inert fact of nature. It is not merely there, just as the Occident itself is not just there either" (4). Starting from the assumption that "men make their own history, [and] that what they can know is what they have made," Said also emphasizes the interaction between fact and fiction, and questions the reliability of history (5).

Pamuk's My Name is Red is a novel, which is set during the reign of Ottoman Sultan Murat III (1594-95) in Istanbul, elaborating on the art of Islamic painting whose origins went back to the reign of Timurid Dynasty (1370-1576) in Herat (the present day Afghanistan) (Cole, 1). My Name is Red centres around the murder mystery of the Elegant Effendi, the illuminator of the Sultan's workshop and Enishte Effendi, "mastermind of the manuscript" who tempted the illuminators to illustrate in new Frankish styles. As Emma Dick argues, "Painting, especially 'in the European style', is universally condemned by the Ulema and Ottoman traditionalists, who want to rid the city of such heretical tendencies" (1). Although the Ottoman miniaturists portrayed battles, festivities, love fables or coronations, they refrained from having an individual style or content because the emphasis was on form. As Stefan Cole says, "Portraiture was prohibited for fear that a human likeness would replace Allah as an object of worship-idolatry" (1).

With the Renaissance, a cultural transformation occurs, and the miniature of the Ottoman artists are superseded by the portraiture of the Frankish artists. Therefore, Pamuk's multiple points of view in My Name is Red serves to create both a mystery with the murder of Elegant and Enishte Effendis and a "complex cultural debate" (Cole, 1). Just like the experimental miniaturist who illustrates the objects, animate or inanimate, from the objects' own perspectives, Orhan Pamuk also transgresses the traditional understanding of point of view in the art of fiction and tells his story from different perspectives, including human beings, animals, colours and corpses. Such a technique enables Pamuk to create suspense for his thriller and establish a bridge between the clashing cultural values of the East and the West.

Orhan Pamuk, by creating a protagonist like Black who comes back to Istanbul from the East after twelve years of absence, questions the nature of art, the essence of style and the relationship between God and the artist. Black was born and raised in Istanbul like Pamuk himself. However, unlike Pamuk, who lived three years in New York, Black spends twelve years in the East. In the sixth year of his stay in the service of pashas in the East, Black desperately realizes how he had suffered throughout these years for his "childhood love he left behind"; his young cousin Shekure.

As Black arrives in Istanbul, he likens it to one of the "Arab cities at the other end of the world" (Pamuk, 2001, 8). Furthermore, in Black's view, Istanbul has become the centre of "immorality, inflation, crime and theft" in the sixteenth century (10). It was the time when a hoja called Nusret,

... who preached at the Bayazid Mosque and claimed to be descended from... Muhammad... attributed the catastrophes that had befallen Istanbul in the last ten years,... the plagues that claimed tens of thousands, the endless wars with the Persians at a cost of countless lives, as well as the loss of small Ottoman fortresses in the West... to disregard for the strictures of the Glorious Koran,... to the playing of musical instruments in dervish houses. (10)

Thus, through his illustration of Ottoman history and Turkish culture, Orhan Pamuk introduces Western reader to the exotic landscape of the Orient. Enishte informs the readers about his working on an illustrated manuscript for his Sultan but he wants to represent the "Sultan's entire world, just like the paintings of the Venetian masters. However, unlike the Venetians, his work would not merely depict material objects, but naturally the inner riches, joys and fears of the realm over which "[their] Sultan rules" (30). Such an understanding of a hybrid art, with an Eastern content in Western form, is also reflected in the narrative structure of Orhan Pamuk's novel itself. Thus, there are similarities between Orhan Pamuk's plotting of his novel My Name is Red and the method of perspective used by Enishte Effendi in the book commissioned by the Sultan. Such motifs as trees, Satan, death, dogs and women are used, in the text, as focalizers whereas the artist, or the novelist in this case, becomes the central point of attention with all the autobiographical details of his own life:

The pictures we made on various parts of the two pages over the past year... were arranged, large and small, according to Enishte's... new method of composition... I was both the center of everything, like a sultan or a king, and, at the same time, myself... These two feelings balanced each other... I knew every mark on my face and shirt, all of the wrinkles, shadows, moles and boils, every detail from my whiskers to the weave of my clothes and all their colors in all their shades had to be perfect, down to the minutest details, as much as the skill of Frankish painters would allow. (484-485)

In accordance with the concept of hybridity, Istanbul also has a cosmopolitan nature with inhabitants from different ethnic and religious background. As a bridge between Europe and Asia, it is also a meeting point of the Eastern and Western cultures where the examples of the Christian and Islamic arts coexist. Hagia Sophia represents the fusion of both cultures serving to two different religions in different times. Istanbul is also described in Pamuk's novel as one of the centres of art.

Orhan Pamuk, in My Name is Red, also questions the freedom of the artist in creating his work of art by stressing the hegemony of the patron who, politically and financially, suppresses the free will of the artist. For example, when Master Osman, as the chief illustrator asked by Sultan "to copy a portrait of His Highness, which had been commissioned from a Venetian", he complies with Sultan's orders "with disgust, referring to the experience as torture" (112).

Therefore, Pamuk creates a debate between the conservative and the modern illustrators. The Oldlights support the idea that "the old morality ought to persist at the workshop and the [illustrators] should follow the path laid by the Persian masters" (114). They also believe that the old models, the old myths and legends should also be introduced to the new manuscripts. Finally, they emphasize that the sole attention of the illustrator should not be overwhelmed by materialistic concerns.

In My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk also compares and contrasts Western and Eastern art forms like painting and miniature. He claims that the Western portraiture is a more popular art form since the artist imitates reality as it is, as if immortalizing the one painted. However, the Eastern miniatures are more original in content since they turn out to be the expression of the miniaturist's synthesis of the external reality through his own prism. Before he is killed by his murderer the "Beloved Uncle" says:

Believe me, none of the Venetian masters have your poetic sensibility, your conviction, your sensibility, the purity and brightness of your colors, yet their paintings are more compelling because they more closely resemble life itself... Indeed, [the Venetian masters] paint what they see, whereas we paint what we look at. Beholding their work, one comes to realize that the only way to have one's face immortalized is through the Frankish style... Just a glance at those paintings and you too would want to see yourself this way, you'd want to believe that you're different from all others, a unique, special and particular being. (206)

The ambiguity in the colour symbolism of the novel's title My Name Is Red can be either read as death related to the thriller plot of the text or the passionate love suffered by Shekure. It can also be associated with hell whose red flames scare the miniaturists since they are dealing with a blasphemous art challenging God's creativity. Orhan Pamuk describes "red" as a strong and determinant colour, a colour of "passions" and quick "heartbeats" (226).

In Shekure and Black's marriage, Pamuk illustrates, in detail, the Turkish wedding ceremony and its rituals, for example, how the groom comes on a white horse to the bride's house to take her to her new house. As part of the procession, they announce their marriage to the public, to see if there is any objection, in accompany of a hand-drum and zurna (a folk music instrument), and the groom lowers the bride mounted on the horse to her new house by emptying "a bag of silver coins" over the bride's head before the public (246). Pamuk describes the Turkish religious festivities and ceremonies with all details, and also informs the readers about the customs of eating and celebrating on different occasions like

... the baklava, mint candy, marzipan bread and fruit ladder of holidays; the pilaf with meat and the tea-cup pastries of circumcision ceremonies; drinking sour-cherry sherbet at celebrations held by the Sultan in the Hippodrome; eating everything at weddings; and tossing down the sesame, honey or variously flavored condolence halvas sent by the neighbors at wakes. (291)

Through Master Osman, who directs Sultan's workshop, Orhan Pamuk emphasizes the changing nature of Ottoman art due to the social and political changes that took part in the sixteenth century Ottoman history. Master Osman nostalgically complains that "magnificent works of art can no longer be made as they once were" (283). For the traditional miniaturist, Enishte Effendi is a "fool" as they find him "more pretentious than knowledgeable, more ambitious than intelligent" (286). Thus, such an image of Enishte Effendi among the master miniaturists well symbolizes the reception of the Western art as a threat for the traditional Ottoman miniature and calligraphy.

Zeynep Uysal Erkatip in her essay entitled "From the Breaking of Tradition to Turkish Modernization: The Perception of the Art of Painting in My Name is Red" also underlines the significance of the sixteenth century in the Ottoman Art as a breaking point of the canon with a "bell jar" metaphor (362). She claims that the homogeneous liquid of different components which is complete and sublime in itself is overwhelmed by the dominance of another liquid surrounding the jar. Under the pressure which imposes its own nature on the perfect Ottoman structure, the bell jar is broken and two different types of liquid are mixed with one another, and produce an amorphous new liquid. Thus, this analogy well-represents the transformation of the traditional Ottoman art under the impact of Western art. This process, as Zeynep Uysal Katip states, is commenced in the sixteenth century and had a momentum in the nineteenth century modernization period in Ottoman history (362-363).

As Zeynep Uysal Erkatip further argues, there is a similarity between the traditional Ottoman art and early examples of the modern art before the modernization period (366-367). In both cases, religion plays a significant role. Such Western paintings are full of biblical figures and moral catechism while the traditional miniatures celebrate the sovereignty and magnificence of the Sultan who is the reflection of Allah according to the Chain of Being (367). Therefore, the Frankish style is considered by master illustrators as "blasphemy, atheism, and even heresy" (Pamuk, 2001, 295).

Orhan Pamuk as a writer who bridges the Eastern and Western cultures with a sense of double-consciousness well portrays the burden and the misery of the traditional Ottoman miniaturists, enforced to illustrate in the Frankish style, and stresses the oddity of the final product, "a miserable painting that was neither Venetian nor Persian" (303):

If I had told my illustrators to draw a tree, [they] would have begun by conceiving this tree as part of a story so they might draw the image with confidence... This, however, was a miserable, solitary tree; behind it, there was a quite high horizon line that hearkened back to the style of the oldest masters of Shiraz... The desire to depict a tree simply as such as the Venetian masters did, was here combined with the Persian way of seeing the world from above. (303)

Orhan Pamuk discusses art as a theme in My Name is Red. In between the lines, the reader finds Pamuk's original views about the art of painting with all its terminology like verisimilitude and perspective. Art is also used as an evidence to solve the murder mystery of the novel. Analyzing the horse images, the master illustrators try to figure out the murderer of both the Elegant and Enishte Effendis. Through the murderer's eyes, Pamuk introduces the reader to the exotic markets of Istanbul like "the Chicken Sellers Market in Bayazid" and the slave market with their soup and pudding shops, barber shops, clothes pressers, bread bakeries, grocers' shops "smelling of pickles and salted fish" and also herbs and notions shops with "the sacks of coffee, ginger, saffron and cinnamon and the cans of gum mastic, the Aniseed, and brown and black cumin" (340). Under the disguise of the thriller plot of the novel, Pamuk also introduces the reader to the world of the Sultans, the Ottoman palace with its Divan Square, the private quarters of the Enderun (the Sultan's palace), the Harem and the Treasury.

Emma Dick also finds Pamuk's views on "Ottoman and Islamic artistic style provoking and intuitive" (2). In Dick's view, "One is never sure where the border lies between the two facets of Pamuk's 'style' - historical or literary, simple or surreal, true or false?" like Pamuk himself who has an insight into both cultures without limiting his identity into any of them (2).

As Eric J. Iannelli states,

My Name is Red operates on many contrasting levels: In addition to an ingenious and engaging analysis of art, the edges of the story bleed into the categories of murder mystery, Islamic folklore, and historical novel. This metaphor builds upon metaphor... And for the benefit of [the readers] who need a quick refresher course in Middle Eastern geography and historical highlights, there are appendices that feature a historical chronology and a map of the region. (3)

In Orhan Pamuk's view, "miniatures" which he chose to form the subject matter of his novel turns out to be an opportunity for him to "explore differences between East and West" (qtd. in Farnsworth, 2). As Orhan Pamuk also agrees, "Th[e] lost beauty of these miniatures does give [one] a sense... The soul [and] the very meaning of the East"(2). Pamuk also confesses that unlike the miniaturists in My Name is Red "who cannot acquire the methods of the West," he writes with the methods he learned "from the West" because he says, "all generalizations about East and West are generalizations. Don't believe them, don't buy them" (4). Orhan Pamuk asserts, in Other Colours, that his works are the mixture of his hybrid identity and the combination of Eastern and Western methodologies, styles and historical events, which enable Pamuk to go between two worlds without any "sense of guilt" (155). As he assumes, neither conservatives, nor modernists can understand the way he bridges the gap between the East and the West in traditional ways. Therefore, Pamuk's My Name is Red well represents the unceasing desire of both worlds, the east and the west to know each other, which, in fact, is a prerequisite for establishing a mutual understanding between two cultures.

© Rezzan Kocaöner Silkü (Ege University, Izmir, Turkey)

*) Rezzan Kocaöner Silkü: is an assistant professor of English Literature at Ege University, Izmir, Turkey, where she received her PhD in 1996 with her dissertation on Doris Lessing's novels. Her teaching and research areas range from Victorian Fiction to Postcolonial Studies. She has various publications on Doris Lessing, Chinua Achebe, Joseph Conrad, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Arundhati Roy and Flora Nwapa. She is a member of PALA (The Poetics and Linguistics Association), The Kipling Society, ASAT (The American Studies Association of Turkey), and EAAS (The European Association of American Studies).


Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.

________ . Nation and Narration. London: Routledge, 1999.

Cole, J. Stefan. "My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk." A Non-Review. (2001): 1-2.

Dick, Emma. "The Mystery of Istanbul." Book Review. (2002): 1-3.

Erkatip, Zeynep Uysal. "Gelenegin Kirilisindan Türk Modernleþmesine, Benim Adim Kirmizi'da Resmin Algilanisi (From the Breaking of Tradition to Turkish Modernization: The Perception of the Art of Painting in My Name is Red)." Ed. Engin Kiliç. Orhan Pamuk'u Anlamak (Understanding Orhan Pamuk). Iletisim: Istanbul, 2000.

Farnsworth, Elizabeth. "Bridging Two Worlds." The NewsHour. MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, (2002): 1-6.

Hall, Catherine. White, Male and Middle Class: Explorations in Feminism and History. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992.

Iannelli, Eric J. "My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk." Rain Taxi Online Edition. Rain Taxi, Inc., (2001): 1-3.

Knopf, Alfred A. "A Conversation with Orhan Pamuk." The Borzoi Reader Online. Random House, (2003): 1-3.

Pamuk, Orhan. My Name is Red. Trans. By Erdag Göknar. London: Faber and Faber, 2001.

_______. Öteki Renkler (Other Colours). Istanbul: Iletisim, 1999.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. London and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.

5.3. I First Learned about Russia from Dostoievski. Literature as an Imaginary Way of Understanding Another Country

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For quotation purposes:
Rezzan Kocaöner Silkü (Ege University, Izmir, Turkey): "Nation and Narration": Cultural Interactions in Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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