It has been a week since I completed My Name is Red, and I do not yet know what to write about this book, and how. I could describe it in a few words – a grand masterpiece – but that wouldn’t tell you anything. I could write a page about it, like some of the reviews I read, but it would still be unsatisfactory.
There are many ways to approach a review. A form I like – but one I’ve rarely seen, perhaps due to its limited applicability and difficulty of composition – is where the review mimics the structure and tone of the work being reviewed, thus offering the reader an essence of the work: a portrait much more intimate than the detached sketch one finds in most reviews. So, for a book such as this one, the review would follow the novel’s narrative structure: an independent narrator who illustrates a part of the painting the book symbolizes…
I AM CALLED A REVIEWER
Since the last few days I have had a strange, recurring dream: I am woken up at an early hour by persistent knocking at the door. Opening it, I find a man from the palace, with a message from the Magnificent Sultan himself. His Excellency Our Sultan would like to know if the review of the work commissioned to me has been completed. I lower my head, partly in shame, partly in fear. Not yet, I reply, and the man goes away, carrying with him my answer that is bound to enrage Our Sultan.
The dream wakes me up, and I sleep fitfully the rest of the night. When morning arrives – by way of a ray of light that illuminates the room with the same strange brightness one sees in the beautiful eyes of Shirin as she gazes at the picture of handsome Hüsrev, the scene painted by the great Master Bihzad – I decide to pick up my pen and finish, once and for all, the review I have been struggling to put into words.
But tell me, dear reader, how do I review a work of such beauty?
How do I review a book with pages where every sentence contains a story, and where, as you move from one sentence to next you leap from one magical world into another, until, crossing this maze of stories and worlds, you begin to wish it had continued forever?
From what viewpoint do I review a work that is conveyed not just through words of people like you and me, but also through the sermon of a Dog, the lament of a Tree, the adventures of a Gold Coin, the boast of colour Red, the lecture of a proud Horse, the tale of two Dervishes, and the revelation of Satan himself?
How do I guide you into a book that takes you back into the middle-ages, through the winding streets of sixteenth-century Istanbul inhabited by blind beggars who know intimate details of who crossed their path, with whom, carrying what; by clothes peddlers with a bundle of clothes on their back and letters tucked to their waist, carrying love-notes from not one but many prospective husbands to the woman they love; by moneylenders who identify counterfeit gold coins by biting into them; by storytellers who entertain miniaturists after midnight in coffeehouses tucked away in remote corners; by Janissaries, those Turkish soldiers feared by all?
How do I outline the encounter between two radically different cultures this book is about, an encounter that speaks of a time when the culture of Islam, at its heights in the Medieval Ages, is struggling to hold on to its beliefs threatened by the diametrically opposite culture of the West, of Christianity?
How do I describe a book that conveys, through the resignation of a master miniaturist who has toiled for over half a century illustrating works and teaching pupils the art of painting in the ways of the old masters of Herat, the sad truth that their era is now over; that their magical works of art depicting the world as Allah saw it would be eclipsed by the Western method of painting reality as seen by Man, and hence be forgotten forever after?
How do I reveal the hidden, sinful treasures in these pages that liken the male tool to a reed pen and compare a woman’s mouth to an inkwell, pages where a miniaturist uses his reed pen to paint while his wife clings to the reed of his manhood?
How do I classify a work that is both a story of murder – a murder by a miniaturist who reveals to you the shame, guilt, pride and envy that flows through him, invoking your anger now and sympathy then, challenging you to identify him among other characters who speak to you – and a story of love – a love that has waited in the lonely corner of a young man’s heart for twelve long years, a period so long and painful that he no longer can recollect the face of his beloved he dearly loves?
No, this task is beyond me, or anyone else. Such beauty can only be experienced firsthand. So what exactly are you waiting for?