My Name is Red explores how identity and perspective are created through storytelling, and it conveys the idea that any one story is best understood through a multiplicity of narrative perspectives. This corresponds to the Islamic teaching that painting from a single (human) perspective is sinful, and that virtuous representation must seek to imitate the all-seeing and all-knowing gaze of Allah. The novel is divided into 59 short chapters narrated by 12 different narrators, including the unnamed storyteller who takes on different personas. Each narrator has their own distinctive style and brings different elements of the story into focus. For example, while Enishte, Master Oman, and the three miniaturists devote much time to discussions of art, Shekure and Esther—the only female narrators—are more concerned with interpersonal relationships and the drama of domestic life. The diversity of narrative perspectives gives the novel a scope and complexity that would be impossible from a single perspective.
Some of the narrators consciously inhabit several different voices or identities, highlighting the theme of the desire to be two things at once. The murderer, for example, admits that he has decided to develop a “second voice” in order to live with the fact that he, an otherwise ordinary and innocent person, has committed such a terrible crime. This decision increases suspense, as the reader does not discover the murderer’s true identity until the very end of the book. On a similar note, the storyteller explains that when he was a child, he felt a desire to become a woman—although he only experimented with dressing as a woman in his youth, the title of the chapter is “I Am a Woman.” This is only one of a multitude of identities the storyteller inhabits, yet it emphasizes the desire to unite seemingly opposite identities, whether that be sinner/innocent, hero/villain, or man/woman.
Perspective is a high-stakes issue within the book, due to the Islamic teaching that representational perspective can be sinful and dangerous. At the time the novel is set, European artists are experimenting with new realistic painting techniques, including the use of perspective to make paintings appear closer to what is observed by the human eye. Although this is seen as an impressive breakthrough in the West, many in the Islamic world find realist painting to be sinful and the use of perspective to be an insult to God. As visual storytellers, the miniaturists are supposed to depict the world in a way that demonstrates the glory of God, rather than as humans perceive it. The idea that first-person storytelling is an insult to God is emphasized when the murderer argues: “It was Satan who first said ‘I’!”. At the same time, the use of different narrative perspectives in the novel is a reminder that everything we perceive will inevitably be from a human perspective, rather than a direct illumination of God’s creation.
Storytelling is also a way of creating religious and cultural identity. Throughout the book, the characters refer to stories from Islamic culture, such as accounts of the lives of Persian rulers or of the myth of Shirin and Hüsrev. These stories form a counterpoint to the main action occurring in the novel, setting an example against which the characters make their own decisions. The stories also help to create a sense of belonging and cultural coherence. In the chapter narrated by the picture of a tree, the tree admits: “The essential reason for my loneliness is that I don't even know where I belong. I was supposed to be part of a story but I fell from there like a leaf in autumn.” The implication is that people also suffer when they are cut off from a broader story, whether that story is provided by religion, culture, family, or—in the case of the miniaturists—craft. Although each person has their own unique perspective and identity, people find meaning in the broader web of stories created by community and culture. At the same time, the book makes it clear that different identities and perspectives can come into conflict with each other, which leaves some characters (such as the murderer) feeling alienated from the world around them and even from themselves.
Storytelling, Identity, and Perspective ThemeTracker
Storytelling, Identity, and Perspective 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.
I heard tell that this Husret Hoja, taking matters even further, declared with spittle flying from his mouth, "Ah, my devoted believers! The drinking of coffee is an absolute sin! Our Glorious Prophet did not partake of coffee because he knew it dulled the intellect, caused ulcers, hernia and sterility; he understood that coffee was nothing but the Devil's ruse. Coffeehouses are places where pleasure-seekers and wealthy gadabouts sit knee-to-knee, involving themselves in all sorts of vulgar behavior; in fact, even before the dervish houses are closed, coffeehouses ought to be banned. Do the poor have enough money to drink coffee? Men frequent these places, become besotted with coffee and lose control of their mental faculties to the point that they actually listen to and believe what dogs and mongrels have to say.
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.
He was frightened because he suddenly understood––and perhaps desired––that Islamic artistry perfected and securely established by the old masters of Herat, would meet its end on account of the appeal of portraiture.
"However, it was as if I too wanted to feel extraordinary different and unique," he said. As if prodded by the Devil, he felt himself strongly drawn to what he feared, "How should I say it? It is as if this were a sin of desire, like growing arrogant before God, like considering oneself of utmost importance, like situating oneself at the center of the world."
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.
I believe in myself, and, most of the time, pay no mind to what's been said about me. Tonight, however, I've come to this coffeehouse to set my miniaturist and calligrapher brethren straight about certain gossip, lies and rumors.
Of course, because I'm the one speaking, you're already prepared to believe the exact opposite of what I say. But you're smart enough to sense that the opposite of what I say is not always true, and though you might doubt me, you're astute enough to take an interest in my words: You're well aware that my name, which appears in the Glorious Koran fifty-two times, is one of the most frequently cited.
All right then, let me begin with God's book, the Glorious Koran. Everything about me in there is the truth. Let it be known that when I say this, I do so with the utmost humility. For there's also the issue of style. It has always caused me great pain that I'm belittled in the Glorious Koran. But this pain is my way of life. This is simply the way it is.
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."
There was a time when Allah looked upon the world in all its uniqueness, and believing in the beauty of what he saw, bequeathed his creation to us, his servants. The duty of illustrators and of those who, loving art, gaze upon the world, is to remember the magnificence that Allah beheld and left to us. The greatest masters in each generation of painters, expending their lives and toiling until blind, strove with great effort and inspiration to attain and record the wondrous dream that Allah commanded us to see. Their work resembled Mankind recalling his own golden memories from the very beginning. Unfortunately, even the greatest masters, just like tired old men or great miniaturists gone blind from their labors, were only vaguely able to recollect random parts of that magnificent vision.
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.
Had Enishte Effendi’s book been completed and sent to them, the Venetian masters would've smirked, and their ridicule would’ve reached the Venetian Doge––that is all. They'd have quipped that the Ottomans have given up being Ottoman and would no longer fear us.