The book starts with the murder of Elegant Effendi, a master miniaturist and gains momentum with a second, of Enishte, who had been secretly commissioned by the Ottoman Sultan to produce a book by the four best miniaturists of the land (Elegant, Olive, Stork and Butterfly) to celebrate the 1000th year of the Hegira.
Secret for the simple reason that the illustrations are to be done in the Frankish style, with the use of perspectival, representational art not in keeping with Islamic thought. Miniatures were acceptable because they were illustrations, secondary to the text and the images made were generic. The use of potraiture and perspectives also brought about the threat of idealizing people and pictures and depicting things as we see them not as per their importance in God's eyes. The book is shrouded in such secrecy in fact, that even the artists are never allowed to see any painting in whole, simply working on their individual parts.
Red's 59 chapters are narrated by different characters who take the story forward in the form of a murder mystery, a love story (between Black, Enishtes nephew, who is investigating the crimes and the beautiful Shekure, Enishtes daughter) and as a discussion on the meaning and nature of art. It is as such a treatise that the book truly flows. About half of the books chapters do not directly contribute to the story, discussing instead the various miniaturist themes from Husrev and Shirin to Leyla and Mejnun, the different styles of miniature art in Persia, India and China, the differences between Islamic and Frankish styles, as well as the importance of style, time and blindness.
Views are expressed not only by the artists in the book but by the illustrations themselves - acted out by the story teller in the coffee house . A tree (I don't want to be a tree, I want to be its meaning), death (I'm just an illustration. Be that as it may, I read terror in your eyes) and even the color red (Yes, those who cannot see would deny it, but the truth is I can be found everywhere).
Though I found the translation by Edrag Gonkar beautiful and lyrical the book doesnt always make for easy reading. In trying to keep the murderers identity a secret Pamuk tells us very little that differentiates the three remaining miniaturists from each other. I found Black and his marriage to Shekure (and often the triangle with her brother-in-law) often incomprehensible and frustrating. Yet I found Shekure herself beguiling, intriguing and elusive, her motives always just out of grasp.
Though My Name is Red is set in the late 16th century, I think it is very topical,(probably not as much as Snow, which is openly political). Loss of identity and conflicts between the east and the west are common themes in Pamuks work and i think few people have done as fine a job as him in depicting them and that there are few as well equiped as him to do so. To quote Pamuk himself:
"I have spent my life in Istanbul, on the European shore, in the houses looking towards the Asian shore. Living by the water with a view of the opposite shore ceaselessly reminded me of my place in the world. Then one day a bridge connecting the two shores of the Bosporus was built. When I went up on the bridge and surveyed the landscape, I realized it was still better and still more lovely to see the two shores at once. I felt that a bridge between two shores was the best thing to be. Speaking to each shore without completely belonging to either; this unveiled the finest scenery of all."
My Name is Red is proof of that.