Heresy in Miniature - Commissioned by the sultan to illustrate a book in the European manner, a group of artists treads a dangerous path.
Struggle is the name of the game in Orhan Pamuk's latest novel, My Name Is Red, ostensibly a murder mystery set in late-sixteenth-century Istanbul when the Ottoman Empire had slipped off its zenith as the affluent society of the age and was struggling to keep pace with rival European powers. Forces from within, such as violent fundamentalist religion (which raises its contentious head whenever a society takes an economic turn for the worse), and forces from without, in particular Renaissance Europe with its seductive toys, inventions, and commerce, were undermining Ottoman imperial order, which had been too successful for its own good.
The main story line, which is reflected and rereflected with a multitude of short takes from traditional narratives and historical sources, revolves around the murder of two miniaturists attached to the court of Sultan Murat III, a patron of illuminated book art. These exquisite illustrations had attained their pinnacle in Persia, thanks to the Mongol hordes that transmitted artistic ideas from China by way of Central Asia, where Turkish peoples have their roots. As such, these Ottoman miniature artists had been imitating and reimitating the established Persian and Central Asian masters who for centuries had been illustrating and reillustrating the same classical stories. There had been no innovation, in other words, other than perfecting what was already considered perfect; in being so self-reflective, miniature painting had indeed become a very incestuous art.
For reasons of his own, the sultan, who remains an enigmatic but omnipotent presence in the novel, commissions an elderly connoisseur the miniaturists call "Uncle" to prepare an illustrated book in the "Venetian" or European manner, depicting his royal self and his wondrous domain, to be sent as a gift to the doge of Venice. Uncle, who has been to Venice on a diplomatic mission and appreciates the art of portraiture, selects the best miniature artists, nicknamed Elegant, Olive, Stork, and Butterfly. Under his coddling tutelage, they are to learn Western-style painting and adapt it to their intricate and perfected form of Islamic art.
What are miniatures versus paintings?
Be they Islamic, Buddhist, or Christian in origin, miniatures endear themselves to collectors because they evoke nostalgia, re-creating the memory of childhood where time has stopped. A miniature represents an idealized world; not only can you see the whole thing at once, but everything happens at the same time, as in a porcelain miniature of an English castle, a dollhouse, a toy train set, or a Chinese box. Islamic miniatures depict the world as God sees it, all at once, everything happening at the same time. God sees all as we see a field of poppies, beautiful flowers but indistinguishable from one another. Islamic miniature art books are toys created to amuse powerful potentates and reassure them that they own the world. In their pages, all is golden, serene, eternal.
Making images that could be worshiped, on the other hand, such as images of Christ or the Madonna, was forbidden to the Muslim artist. In illuminated renditions, the figure of Muhammad is always veiled, and depictions of Allah do not exist because God cannot take human form. God is known only to the mind, not to the senses.
Perspectival Western art renders the world as man sees it, with objects getting smaller in the distance. Thus a sovereign and a dog could be depicted as being the same size, depending on where they are placed in the picture. By celebrating the worldly success of the person in the picture, Western portraiture makes itself subject to man's time, which is temporal, full of anxiety, and, basically, a lie because one could hang the portrait up and worship it as if it were a deity. For a Muslim artist, however, making an image that competes with God was the ultimate heresy, blasphemy that was punishable with horrible death. Calligraphy was the only art that could be practiced safely without interference from pious theologians, who tolerated illumination only because it illustrated and beautified the text.
The labyrinthine plot
The book opens with the murder of Elegant, one of the four talented miniaturists, whose corpse begins speaking directly to the reader from the bottom of a dry well where it has been hidden. We learn that Elegant was the gilder responsible for embellishing the borders of illuminated pages with stylized designs taken from nature. Before he was murdered, he'd come under the influence of fire-and-brimstone sermons of the charismatic fundamentalist preacher of the time and become deathly afraid that the dangerous secret project would be the end of him. He was right. The corpse, like the ghost of Hamlet's father, demands that his murderer be found and punished. "My death conceals an appalling conspiracy against our religion," cautions the corpse, "our traditions, and the way we see the world."
Each chapter of this art whodunit is told from the point of view attributed to a different character, with each beginning where the last one left off. The second narrator, Black, is the presumed hero and sleuth, as well as the character endowed with the author's persona (insofar as Black resembles Orhan Pamuk both physically and psychologically). Shekure, his lady love, cousin, and the book's heroine, describes Black for the reader, whom she often addresses directly: "Perhaps you aren't aware that Black is a tall, thin and handsome man. He has a broad forehead, almond-shaped eyes and strong, straight, elegant nose. As in his childhood, his hands are long and thin and his fingers are jittery and agile."
Black (like Pamuk himself) has given up a career in art and, out of necessity, has become a scribe or "scriptor," as Roland Barthes would have it. He has been away from Istanbul for twelve years, mainly because Shekure had rejected the love he conceived for her when they'd been living under the same roof; he has recently returned, at the summons of his uncle, from the East where he'd been serving as a minor official. The man called Uncle is actually Black's uncle by marriage, his enishte, which means the husband of one's aunt although the book mistranslates it as "maternal uncle" (which would be day_ in Turkish, a language in which kinship designations are very specific). Since the translator had already lost the actual meaning in translation, why he didn't just go ahead and call the character "Uncle" is anybody's guess. Uncle would have been easier on the reader.
Beautiful Shekure is Uncle's daughter, and although she is refined and literate, she possesses her share of feminine wiles. She has returned to her paternal home because the handsome cavalry officer she'd chosen to marry (over Black) has been missing in action for several years and is presumed dead. Although she hasn't been able to get a divorce from the dead man, she's on the lookout for a good husband to father her two orphaned boys, Orhan and Shevket, when Black conveniently appears.
Key number one: My Name Is Red, a mystery intended to carry an incredibly learned and lively discourse on Eastern and Western art, is also a roman a clef of sorts on the romantic side of the book. Shekure is the given name of Pamuk's real-life mother, and Shevket is the name of his real-life brother (now an economics professor); besides all that, Pamuk's uncle by marriage was a celebrated man of letters and editor of an innovative Western-style literary magazine, who must have inspired the creation of the man called Uncle. As it was put so succinctly by Professor Djelal Kadir, "All romance is family romance." Pamuk's work certainly reflects that notion.
Uncle presses two vital tasks on Black. First, he is to find the murderer who, Uncle fears, must be one of the three remaining miniaturists--if not some crazed fundamentalist. Second, he is to provide the text for the hybrid book of paintings Uncle has been preparing for the sultan. Both tasks are dangerous yet interesting. The first becomes the motive for Uncle's murder by the same killer who also dispatched the hapless gilder. Which leaves Black with two murders to solve, especially since his lady love demands that he find her father's killer, if Black wants her to love and marry him.
Key number two: The second task provides us with another clue to reading the book on the intellectual side. What Black (and by implication Pamuk) has to accomplish is a radical reversal of tradition: miniatures were conceived to illustrate well-known stories, but here Black must conceive new-style stories to textualize the new style of paintings. Pamuk gets busy doing Black's work behind the scenes. As if he were a verbal miniaturist, he embellishes the book with an exuberant, magical tour of sixteenth-century Istanbul; after all, "embellishing ought to bring merriment to the page."
Let's now review the labyrinth of the novel: the first strand we follow is the detective story, the second is a love story, the third is political. As the empire comes to a halt and its institutions begin to lose out to Europe, there is terror in the streets. Fundamentalist religion, as it gains political clout, robs the community's spiritual life of its meaning. But there are always brave souls among us, our artists, who are our shamans and who have deities of their own.
Shamans of the coffeehouse
How Pamuk portrays the political world is particularly ingenious. He introduces us to a coffeehouse, where miniaturists and others who are addicted to convivial pastimes gather to indulge in coffee, wine, and loose talk--all sins according to the religious right. Every evening at the coffeehouse, a stand-up comedian (a meddah, which the translator lamely renders as "story-teller") performs his irreverent material, poking fun at the clerics, as well as the audience and the culture at large for its foibles, fears, guilt feelings, conventions. Before he starts his monologue, he has one of the artists draw a rough image of his subject matter on a sheet of paper which he then hangs up behind him while he wittily impersonates the image.
The images he chooses coincide with the new-style paintings in Uncle's secret book: dog, tree, coin, Death, red, horse, Satan, Woman. The comedian invokes these powerful emblematic presences by imbuing the object with his own soul, making "it" into "I": "I am a dog," and so on. Since the dog is the pariah animal of the Islamic world, considered filthy and sacrilegious by the Shiite sect, what could be funnier and more annoying than using its voice to chastise and lampoon Shiite clerics? What better image can there be than the tree to invoke the Platonic idea of treeness, thereby the "meaning" of tree? The coin admits to being a counterfeit Venetian ducat, wearing gold wash instead of being made of the noble material, foisted on the Ottomans who don't know any better. It comes to stand for "realistic" European art, which depends on counterfeit light and shadow; therefore, the life it represents is also counterfeit. The image of Death is, of course, the beginning of mythology; it represents the invisible life beyond the visible. What we don't know, Joseph Campbell says, supports what we know. While Europeans represent Death as a terrifying skeleton, Muslims think of Death as an awesome angel, Azrael, whose wings span heaven and earth and give comfort to dying Muslims who are truly faithful. "Since the majority of you miniaturists are bound for Hell," says the figure of Death in the monologue, the artist who depicted Death gave him wings "laden with spikes."
The action in the novel takes seven days; there are seven performances and seven paintings. The eighth one, which presumably is the culmination of everything, perhaps containing a blasphemous image of the sultan himself in the center, is missing. It has probably ended up in the possession of the murderer, who must have filched it after braining Uncle with a solid brass Mongolian inkwell.
The murderer, who admits to being one of the four sensitive and talented artists with refined perceptions of their own world, speaks directly to the reader without, of course, revealing his real identity. He is a driven character; he's ravenous for everything in this creation but also deeply depressed, exemplifying our notion of the artist as the alien in our midst. Obsessed with his art and beset with dark passions, he considers himself the best painter among the lot, boasting that he has perfect mastery of the style of his school of painting, which he has learned through discipline, obedience, and dependence on his masters. Although a mature artist now, he claims he has no individual style, which he considers a handicap that arises from flaws in artistry and only serves to give away the artist's identity, just as clues might betray the murderer's hidden persona.
He kills Elegant because he can't bear Elegant's fear. He kills Uncle when Uncle makes the case for the end of miniature art as they know it, and how it doesn't matter anyway because the gorgeous illuminated books they've ruined their eyesight in preparing have all been tossed into the sultan's treasury, thereby into oblivion. He kills Uncle because he can't bear the truth Uncle has spoken. In the end, though, a stylistic eccentricity in his original school of painting turns out to be the clue that gives him away.
On the political side, rabble roused by the religious right mob the coffeehouse, shattering the place. They slaughter the comedian, who is still dressed in the guise of his final monologue, Woman.
The artist's moment of freedom
The romantic side of the novel culminates with love, marriage, a sense of well-being for Shekure and her sons, but not for Black, who's haunted, unhappy, and missing from the picture like the Holy Ghost, perhaps because he's busy writing a book. Shekure imagines herself depicted as the Madonna, with Orhan suckling at her breast in the very center of the icon, and Shevket standing beside her: the picture of utter bliss. This half-Christian and half-Muslim portrait of a semisacred, semiprofane family is emblematic of the novel's hybrid nature. It is innovative yet imperfect; but then "imperfection is the mother of style."
For some inexplicable reason, the translator omits the most important sentence in the final paragraph, which knits together the personalities of Black and Orhan. The missing sentence should read: "He's constantly nervous, ill-tempered, and unhappy; he's never afraid of being unfair to people he doesn't love." The description fits both Orhan and Black, and thereby Orhan Pamuk, the fully mature, world-class writer who has written the book of illuminated words that we now hold in our hands. The writer's family portrait exists there in the eternal light of fiction where time has stopped, as in the golden age before the Fall, or before we learn about guilt and shame, with him eternally at his fictional mother's breast as her beloved fictional son and also in her fictional bed as her amorous fictional husband. Now, there's a wish fulfillment that surpasses the wildest dreams of Dr. Freud, who insisted that transgression of taboo is the artist's solemn duty. Pamuk breaks two taboos with one stone.
Art is unruly and in the forefront of change. It's dangerous to established order; yet exploration and innovation carry with them the risk of failure--something Pamuk is well aware of, and his book is a stunning reversal that succeeds where it fails. He has written a postmodernist novel, depicting characters that are somewhat flat, like those in miniature painting, but also somewhat three-dimensional where there is enough light and shadow. Although he has failed to write a well-wrought modernist "realistic" novel where character meets destiny, he has successfully sustained a jihad (struggle) against European realism, which has become so arid that it bores even its practitioners, so vulgar that it serves only the basest of interests, or so dysfunctional that the death of the novel is announced every few years.
We see reality through conventions. Miniatures have one set of conventions, Venetian portraits another set, but both are prisons. The only moment of freedom the artist experiences is when switching from one set of conventions to the other set, unmoored, so to speak, and so momentarily set free.
Translation and 'orientalism'
One wishes this innovative novel could have been rendered into idiomatic English, instead of the conventional mishmash reserved for translating Arabian Nights tales. Just to mention a few examples from the book: girls are "maidens," beautiful women are "belle of belles," greengrocers are "fruit-and-vegetable sellers," tips are "bakhsheesh," and characters speak woodenly: "nay, nay," "have faith in what I say," "heed not my heart," "I was irate with him," "she was beautiful and becoming." Say what?
Some critics have accused Pamuk of "orientalism" as a ploy to make My Name Is Red attractive to Western audiences, but the impression of orientalism is created only by his translator's rendition. Ever since Edward Said taught us that orientalism is a dirty word, gutsier translators of Middle Eastern languages have come to regard every act of translation as also an act of politics, which is quite a different thing than selling oriental rugs.
How do we tell when a text is guilty of orientalism? Well, the diction is so fusty and musty that the characters seem simpleminded or out of touch, which is a convention signaling the reader that these characters aren't "us" but "them," the "others" whose existence isn't as authentic as our own. You might well object: But My Name Is Red is a historical novel from another country! Ostensibly yes, but even so, world-class translators don't stoop to dummying down the text into some mock- historical language. A good example is Umberto Eco's The Island of the Day Before, also a historical novel, translated from the Italian by William Weaver into such a lucid, idiomatic English that it matches, even surpasses, the best prose written by our best writers.
Our translator, on the other hand, seems uncomfortable in both languages and cultures, giving an impression that he's consulting the thesaurus but still choosing the wrong synonym; so much so that one begins to suspect him of incompetence and resorts to checking his version against the original. A close textual comparison of ten random pages betrays up to twenty mistranslations, misreadings, and errors in rendering ethnographic details. Add to that his premasticated language, wonky syntax, halting rhythms, as well as the plethora of grammatical mistakes that wouldn't clear Remedial English 101, and one wonders why some reviewers have flattered the translator so lavishly. Such unwonted indulgence doesn't make any sense--unless, of course, there was some prompting and prodding by the publishers and agents who want this book to go over big.
On the surface level, the text seems tolerably competent and readable, or even comfortable because it doesn't challenge our expectations, considering that we are conditioned to material like this from the Near and Middle East--although some readers might have uneasy reactions, even without the burden of this polemic essay. One thing is for certain, however; the translation would have benefited greatly from a thorough editing by a first-class wordsmith. It might have cost a little more, but considering how carefully the book is being marketed, it would have been well worth the expense.n
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|Publication:||World and I|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2002|
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