In a typical murder mystery, the dead don’t speak. However, in this novel, both Elegant and Enishte narrate from the afterlife. This inherently challenges the idea that life and death are disconnected in any absolute sense—Pamuk suggests instead that the consciousness of the soul unites life and death. Perhaps one of the most striking features of My Name is Red’s exploration of life and death is its literal interpretation of Muslim teachings about the afterlife. In the opening chapter, Elegant’s corpse is aware that people will find it miraculous that he is narrating from the afterlife: “There is indeed another world, thank God, and the proof is that I'm speaking to you from here. I've died, but as you can plainly tell, I haven't ceased to be.”
Yet Elegant’s relief about the existence of the afterlife is tempered by his unhappiness at the fact that his murdered corpse remains rotting at the bottom of a well. These mixed feelings underscore that the boundary between life and death is porous, and that even though the afterlife is hierarchized as the more important state within religious teaching, there is something remarkable and special about life that the soul misses once the body dies. Watching his own funeral, Enishte reflects: “However blissful it is being a soul without a body in the realm of the dead, so too is being a body without a soul among the living; what a pity nobody realizes this before dying.” This idea corresponds to the related tension between the power and beauty of the human world versus the glory of God and the heavens.
The idea of a transitional phase between life and death reflects Islamic doctrine, which—as the dead Enishte explains—stipulates that the soul occupies four different states of being: “1. the womb; 2. the terrestrial world; 3. Berzah, or divine limbo, where I now await Judgment Day; and 4. Heaven or Hell, where I will arrive after the Judgment.” The fact that dead souls contribute to the narration of the novel suggests that there isn’t an absolute divide between the living and the dead, and that the dead play an active role in human reality. The story of Shekure’s divorce also highlights the idea that life and death aren’t always absolute states of being. After her husband has been missing for four years, Shekure must convince a judge that he is dead in order to remarry. Whether or not her husband is truly dead is somewhat irrelevant; he is dead to Shekure and their sons, having disappeared from their life.
The novel also collapses the binary between humans and animals and between living beings and inanimate objects, exploring the idea that animals and inanimate objects might have their own kind of consciousness. The narrators include a dog, a tree, a horse, a coin, and the color red. Although it is actually the storyteller who narrates through these voices, this again speaks to the notion that art can animate things we normally assume not to have a spirit or sense of awareness. It also invites the reader to question what seemingly inanimate things would say about the human life going on around them. Some characters possess a real belief in the sentience of inanimate things, such as Jemzi Agha, who tells Black, “At night the spirits of these objects whisper to each other.” Whether or not this is literally true is less important than the fact that the objects have a powerfully important role in the world of the novel, and thus they do possess a kind of active consciousness. Indeed, the novel’s unusual and slightly surreal portrayal of life, death, and consciousness emerges from an acknowledgment of the limits of human knowledge about these phenomena.
Life, Death, and Consciousness ThemeTracker
Life, Death, and Consciousness Quotes in My Name is Red
I'm a dog, and because you humans are less rational beasts than I, you're telling yourselves, "Dogs don't talk." Nevertheless, you seem to believe a story in which corpses speak and characters use words they couldn't possibly know. Dogs do speak, but only to those who know how to listen.
Nevertheless, being a murderer takes some getting used to. I can't stand being at home, so I head out to the street. I can’t stand my street, so I walk on to another, and then another. As I stare at people's faces, I realize that many of them believe they're innocent because they haven't yet had the opportunity to snuff out a life. It's hard to believe that most men are more moral or better than me simply on account of some minor twist of fate. At most, they wear somewhat stupider expressions because they haven't yet killed, and like all fools, they appear to have good intentions.
After I took care of that pathetic man, wandering the streets of Istanbul for four days was enough to confirm that everyone with a gleam of cleverness in his eye and the shadow of his soul cast across his face was a hidden assassin. Only imbeciles are innocent.
Perhaps one day someone from a distant land will listen to this story of mine. Isn't this what lies behind the desire to be inscribed in the pages of a book? Isn't it just for the sake of this delight that sultans and viziers proffer bags of gold to have their histories written? When I feel this delight, just like those beautiful women with one eye on the life within the book and one eye on the life outside, I, too, long to speak with you who are observing me from who knows which distant time and place. I'm an attractive and intelligent woman, and it pleases me that I'm being watched. And if I happen to tell a lie or two from time to time it's so you don't come to any false conclusions about me.
When a God-fearing man like myself unexpectedly becomes a murderer, it takes time to adjust. I've adopted a second voice, one befitting a murderer, so that I might still carry on as though my old life continued. I am speaking now in this derisive and devious second voice, which I keep out of my regular life. From time to time, of course, you'll hear my familiar regular voice, which would've remained my only voice had I not become a murderer. But when I speak under my workshop name, I'll never admit to being "a murderer." Let no one try to associate these two voices, I have no individual style or flaws in artistry to betray my hidden persona. Indeed, I believe that style, or for that matter, anything that serves to distinguish one artist from another, is a flaw––not individual character, as some arrogantly claim.
“Why did they all believe that painting would bar them from the gates of Heaven?"
"You know quite well why! Because they remembered Our Prophet's warning that on Judgment Day, Allah will punish painters most severely."
"Not painters," corrected Enishte Effendi. "Those who make idols. And this is not from the Koran but from Bukhari."
"On Judgment Day, the idol makers will be asked to bring the images they've created to life," I said cautiously. "Since they'll be unable to do so their lot will be to suffer the torments of Hell. Let it not be forgotten that in the Glorious Koran, ‘creator’ is one of the attributes of Allah. It is Allah who is creative, who brings that which is not into existence, who gives life to the lifeless. No one ought to compete with Him. The greatest of sins is committed by painters who presume to do what He does, who claim to be as creative as He."
The world was faithful to the illustrations and legends that I'd avidly scrutinized over the years. I beheld Creation with awe and surprise as if for the first time, but also as if it'd somehow emerged from my memory. What I called "memory" contained an entire world: With time spread out infinitely before me in both directions, I understood how the world as I first experienced it could persist afterward as memory.
This chamber was red, tinged with the color of the velvet cloth, carpets and kilims hanging on the walls. With due reverence, I considered how the accumulation of all this wealth was the consequence of wars waged, blood spilt and cities and treasuries plundered.
"Frightened?" asked the elderly dwarf, giving voice to my feelings. "Everybody is frightened on their first visit. At night the spirits of these objects whisper to each other."
Hundreds of years hence, men looking at our world through the illustrations
we've made won't understand anything. Desiring to take a closer look, yet lacking the patience, they might feel the embarrassment, the joy, the deep pain and pleasure of observation I now feel as I examine pictures in this freezing treasury––but they'll never truly know.
My fickle heart longs for the West when I'm in the East and for the East when I’m in the West.
My other parts insist I be a woman when I'm a man and a man when I’m a woman.
How difficult it is being human, even worse is living a human’s life.
I only want to amuse myself frontside and backside, to be Eastern and Western both.
From now on, the European style would be preeminent in Our Sultan's workshop; the styles and books to which we'd devoted our entire lives would slowly be forgotten––yes, in fact, the whole venture would come to an end, and if the Erzurumis didn't throttle us and finish us off, the Sultan's torturers would leave us maimed . . . But as I cried, sobbed and sighed––even though I continued to listen to the sad patter of the rain––a part of my mind sensed that these were not the things I was actually crying about. To what extent were the others aware of this? I felt vaguely guilty for my tears, which were at once genuine and false.