"I am the only historical novelist in the world who can point out his subjects with his finger." Orhan Pamuk
This is the first book I have read by Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. It won't be the last. This is a wonderful feast of ideas, on one level a historical murder mystery set in the sixteenth / seventeenth century but on another an exploration of art and artistry, of the interplay between images and psychology, the sweep of history and the way Istanbul is at the nexus of Christian and Moslem worldviews.
A central theme of the novel is perspective. The miniatures are painted from the specultive perspective of Allah. There is a growing awareness of Venetian painting and the increasing realism of Western painting and their use of different perspectives. A preacher rails against this 'blasphemy' and this stirs up trouble amongst the miniaturists who are working on a book of illustrations using elements of the western 'style'.
The book itself is a carnival of varied perspectives, with the voices of the miniaturists mixed with the voices of animals, death and even colours. The voice (Pamuk says in the interview linked below) is a version of "James Joyce's inner monologue adapted by William Faulkner". This clearly puts Pamuk on the side of mongrelised culture. The book doesn't just show the tension between the eastern and western art at the time of the book but tells in brief sketches how ideas and 'styles' have changed over time. He also, again in the interview talks of the suspicion that he himself is writing 'for the west' which he says arises from a "very nationalist sentiment, that of suspecting the authenticity of the author because he is addressing the foreigners, perhaps dramatising the exotic side of the local culture here, and especially when that local culture and the national audience is troubled by problems of national identity." This makes me think of the tension often felt in Ireland about works such as The Quiet Man.
|A miniature by the master Bihzad|
The book clearly stands on the side of world culture, one which doesn't forget the past and takes immensely seriously the source and development of ideas. Part of my response to the book was the sense that many ideas which are repudiated over time have at their heart an approach to certain truths which continue to have validity even though they are now seen as archaic or 'backwards'.
I found myself thinking about representation and how it effects how we think of ourselves. There is a certain 'democratic' view in the painting of portraits in which the individual is immediately recognisable. A dog can be as large as a Sultan. These thoughts seem to chime harmoniously with events in North Africa. It also, in this world of where image and celebrity are so intimately bound made me think of how the repetition of images of 'beauty' has damaged the self esteem of many who don't meet the criteria for 'beauty'. It is almost as if instead of the images representing us we must represent the images. I often feel that the most political act in filmmaking is casting. It is so rare to see people walk down the street in a film accurately represent the people who walk down actual streets.
|Bihzad - King Darius and the Herdsman|
The book reminds me in particular of two others, Umberto Eco's medieval detective story The Name of the Rose and William Gaddis' The Recognitions. In Eco's book the importance of an idea, of a book which can be seen as blasphemous, leads to murder and intrigue in a closed group of (mostly) men and ends with the destruction of something because of the implication it has for beliefs. The final act of destruction in Pamuk's book, which I will leave to the reader to discover, can be read as a physical attempt to stop time. Like Eco, Pamuk is constantly responding to meanings behind things while at the same time showing these viewpoints as just that, viewpoints.
Like Wyatt Gwyon in The Recognitions, the miniaturists are searching for authenticity in their work and style is seen, not just as an individual trait but as a result of the way of life of the painter and the time he lives in. To paint a scene properly, the miniaturist must 'remember' the pure image. The true master should be blind and just let his hand find the line. They often refer back to the master illustrator Bihzad who blinded himself rather than paint in a new style. However no matter how they aspire to paint themselves completely out of a painting, something individual will remain.
"genuine artists have an instinctive desire to paint what's forbidden! Sometimes their hands make mischief on their own."
History is a constantly evolving dialectic between society and the individual, the secular and the religious, the east and the west ... The idea is raised in the book that one can escape time through contemplation of the moment captured in one of the miniatures, by having your portrait painted in the realistic style of the Renaissance but the world obeys the second Law of Thermodynamics. Entropy must increase and time will therefore move on. Because of this the true patriot must be a traitor, the true believer a heretic, because only through betrayal and heresy can where we are become where we are going.
I haven't mentioned the bawdy humour in this book, nor have I fully given a sense of the joy of knowledge in it's pages, nor how convincing the characters are. If you haven't done so already find out for yourself.