This is a five-part essay

1. The review

I, the 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 fear, partly in shame. 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 pick up my pen and decide to complete, all at once, 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 is a story, and where, as you move from one sentence to next you leap from one magical world to another, until, crossing this maze of stories and worlds, you begin to wish it continues forever?

From what viewpoint do I review a work that is conveyed not only through words of people like you and me, but also as 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 through a book that transports you 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 during a time when the culture of Islam, at its heights in the Medieval Ages, is struggling to preserve its beliefs threatened by the 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 will inevitably 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 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.

6 thoughts on “This is a five-part essay

  1. Oh, oh. First: reading your response to “My Name is Red” brought the book, and my own experience fo reading it, back so clearly that the only way *I* can respond is to read it again. Because that is what you have made me want to do. I loved “My Name is Red;” it’s my favorite of all of Pamuk’s wonderful books, each special in their own way, but this one — perhaps because I love Persian miniatures, perhaps because I was close friends, at the time, with a woman from Shiraz who enlarged the stories for me and made them even more real, perhaps because I too was a calligrapher at one time — was a love affair in the reading, and like a love affair has left its fragrance in my life.

    But I also appreciate what you’ve done here and said, the way you’ve constructed this post and spoken of your own memories. What greater tribute to a writer’s work, or to that deeply personal experience of reading and falling into a book that we realize will hold us, somehow, forever?

    1. Beth, it’s wonderful to read that this book had a similar impact on you. Your reading, as your comment illustrates, seems to have been special in a personal way. Perhaps you should consider writing about that experience.

  2. Hate to be prosiac (but that’s what I am, a sub-editor). How long did it take you to structure and write this; and was it a concept that grew as you wrote or one that was first planned and then written?

  3. hmmm. i have been unwilling for a long time to pick up Pamuk’s books…..maybe…just maybe i will add this also to my list…only because of your review.

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