One of the Nobel Prize winner’s best-loved novels, in a special edition featuring an introduction by the author and a chronology of Islamic and Western art history that provides additional context for this dazzling story of a murdered artist in sixteenth-century Istanbul.

Excerpt

From the Introduction by the Author

From 1959 to 1974, from the age of seven until I was twenty-two, a good fifteen years, I spent a lot of time painting and dreaming of becoming a painter. I grew up in a large family of engineers with a keen interest in mathematics and brain games and little use for art — except my father who had written and translated poems in his youth and had a good library. My father and uncle were both civil engineers, following my grandfather, who'd been a railway engineer in Anatolia in the 1930s. Still, the family crowd found nothing strange about my attraction to painting — in fact, quite the opposite: they assured me I had a talent for it. Now, fifty years later, I would like to add that my desire to paint was at least as strong as any talent. In fact this strange desire, this instinct to paint and draw shapes on paper, as much as any talent, was, mysteriously, the definitive element in my life.

Just like the sexual desire that would suddenly come to overtake me even when nothing to excite it had passed through my mind, or the melancholy, whose slow but steady encroachment I would invariably detect too late to take cover from it, or the sudden fits of anger I felt, for no clear reason, toward the entire world and everyone in it, the desire to paint would rise up within me out of nowhere and quickly expand to permeate my entire soul. I could postpone satisfying the desire for a while, but experience showed that I would soon be unhappy if I put off painting for too long. To sit at the table with a piece of paper, a notebook, a canvas, and to apply paint, to draw shapes and to make pictures of things using the different types of paint relatives had given me for my birthday, this used to bring me great happiness. (The Swedish writer Strindberg compared this happiness to that awakened by hashish.*)

In childhood and in youth, when I painted I felt myself carried beyond the life taking place inside apartment blocks in dark, cluttered rooms, and I became part of a world more colorful and real. Painting a street scene, I almost felt as if I were walking along that street; just as, while I was happily depicting the black chimney smoke of a ferry plying toward the Princes' Islands, I felt as if summer had come and I was traveling to the islands with my family. Immersed in this happiness, painting, one by one, the waves on the sea or the leaves of a tree, I would be pained, and sometimes in fact afraid, to discern the craftsmanlike aspect of painting and to understand that my second beloved world could only be realized by means of patience and persistence of imagination.

An even greater pleasure was derived from my hand's discovering, almost of its own accord, the shapes of objects it rendered on a piece of paper. It would sometimes seem as if a power beyond me were guiding the pencil in my hand. I would watch with a kind of surprise my hand's rapid progress across the paper, and it was a joy to behold.

As I relate in my semi-autobiographical Istanbul, such pleasure and contentment vanished suddenly, unexpectedly and under mysterious circumstances in 1972-3, when I was twenty-one or twenty-two years old. It was around the same time that I began to write novels. Ten years later, when I was in my thirties and my first novels began to be published to gratifying acclaim in Turkey, I began to think again about those half-forgotten pleasures of my childhood and my youth, imagining now a novel about them, and about being a painter.

My first attempt at such a story was called The Miniature Fragmented, whose painter protagonist was a twentieth-century artist, the events taking place in the present day. While writing this preface, I found in my library-cum-archive in Istanbul some notes and pages I had written for the book and, rereading them, I recalled my disappointment at being, for some reason, unable to muster any faith in the first draft, which I wound up putting aside to embark upon a different novel. The trouble about this abandoned novel was that its hero lived in contemporary Turkey. This was a problem because, despite the existence of some talented artists, there had never been (as I knew from my early youth) a strong and authentic painting scene in twentieth-century Turkey. So I realized that the focus of my novel would inevitably drift away from the childlike pleasures and in fact, immense happiness afforded by depiction and toward the curses of imitation and the impossibility of achieving originality. I did not want to base my novel on the pitiful consequences of imitating Westerners, the tragic and humiliating topic that Naipaul, for instance took up in The Mimic Men; I wanted my subject to be the joy of depiction and the feelings I have when I paint or look at a painting.

It was for that reason I decided to turn to history, to the past. It is, of course, a romantic illusion that the past is a complete and revealed reality, and that works of art from centuries back are more "pure" and "spiritual" than those we produce today. Hermann Hesse, one of the most brilliant exponents of this romantic view of history, expresses it very clearly in the essay "Life Story, Briefly Told":


But after a while I noticed that in matters of the spirit, a life simply in the present, in the modern and most modern, is unbearable and meaningless, that the life of the spirit is made possible only by constant reference to what is past, to history, to the ancient and primeval.

Despite all the reading and research I undertook to write this novel which had taught me that the exact opposite is true, in a corner of my mind I continued to nurture this romantic sentiment that Hermann Hesse articulated so powerfully. Much the same ambivalence accounts for the fairytale-like atmosphere of the novel. Although my study of history books, documents, and the thousands — tens of thousands — of miniatures was a constant reminder that history is no fairytale but rather a compound of something nineteenth-century French novelists called "the bitter truth," I never lost the desire to infuse the fairytale atmosphere in my book. This urge found its release in the stories told by the miniaturists who went by such pseudonyms as Olive, Stork, and Butterfly. I wrote these one-page tales, each a little story within a story, as much to create the desired atmosphere as to introduce the reader to the challenges facing the arts of painting and illumination during that time, and also to the important epochs and problems in the history of Islamic book manufacturing.

My Name is Red is thus made of two different types of material, which seem to contradict each other: on the one hand, the fairytale-like, magical material I derived from personal experience, from the pleasure I find in painting and from studying classical Islamic literature; and on the other hand, the historical material I obtained from documents, from books I read with avid curiosity, and from the tens of thousands of miniatures I looked at, which beckoned me to an "accurate" representation of the historical reality. I entertained this contradiction even know that, for the genre known as the historical novel to succeed, there must be harmony between the writer's own voice and truth and those of the period he has researched and means to evoke.

Indeed, the most demanding work of writing historical novels must be to establish this harmony, which requires that the writer bring to life in his own voice the historical materials, and at the same time, that he unearth, through research, that certain element of the past that suits his dreams and his ideas, whether romantic or realistic. Toward this end the novelists must, of course, read a lot; and enjoy what he reads.

The first fantasies would be realized as My Name Is Red came to me in the late 1980s. I had been immersed in research for years: looking at miniatures in museums, talking to people versed in the subject, wandering from one bookshop to another (online bookselling had not yet begun), making photocopies in libraries, and reading many books, whose topics ranged from history to philosophy. But not until 1994, at the age of forty-two, and only after The New Life was published, was I truly seized by the joy of reading about the world of sixteenth-century miniatures. Every day, as I left the house, I would tell my young daughter, "I won't read any more history books. Today I will start writing the first sentences of my new novel!" And every evening I would return home from my office again having yet to write that first sentence. It went on this way for a year but my morale never faltered — in fact, quite the opposite: I felt the continent of strange little human details, an immense and extravagant universe, stirred to life within me. The colors and originality of this universe that no novelist had yet discovered or depicted, excited me, even as the cluster of technical problems this world implied, in all their depth and complexity, made my head spin.

*"When he saw the clear blue of the sky he felt sentimental, and when he conjured up green bushes and grass he felt unspeakably happy, as though he had eaten hashish." The Son of the Servant, August Strindberg
Publisher: Everyman's Library