Novel of the week

My Name is Red

Orhan Pamuk <em>Faber, 417pp, £10.99</em>

ISBN 0571200478

Istanbul is the only city in the world that sits on two continents. According to its travel posters, it is where east meets west. This suggests a happy exchange that leaves both parties energised and enriched. In Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul, the story is rather darker. His characters belong to neither camp, but are wooed and tantalised by both in equal measure. Their hearts are divided, and so are their minds. They are living proof that east and west meet only to invert each other - until the best man wins.

In The White Castle, Pamuk's first novel to be translated into English, the contest was between a 17th-century court astrologer and the Venetian astronomer he bought as his slave. He set his next two novels in contemporary Istanbul, but in My Name is Red, he returns to the resonant past. Going by our measurements, the year is 1591. According to the Islamic calendar, it's a year before the 1,000th anniversary of the Hegira, or the Prophet Mohammad's emigration from Mecca to Medina. The Ottoman empire is still strong, but its enemies no longer assume it to be invincible.

Ravaged by fires and plague, demoralised by military defeat and spiralling prices, the people of Istanbul have begun to pay attention to a fundamentalist cleric from Erzurum who claims they've brought it all on themselves by straying from the prophet and the strictures of the Koran. The sins he lists include the open sale of wine, the playing of wild music in dervish houses and the drinking of coffee. But another, even greater sacrilege is how the artists of the Ottoman court are succumbing to the temptations and innovations of Frankish painting. And not just the artists. The sultan himself has secretly commissioned a book of illustrations in the Frankish style, portraying his glorious empire not as Allah would see it, but as it appears to the human eye. His plan is to present the book as a gift to the Venetian court, hoping they will see that, even in art, the Ottomans can beat them at their own game. But among the small group of miniaturists involved with the project is one who is certain it will land them in hell.

As he reminds a colleague when they meet in secret, their traditional forms were mindful of the Koran's teachings: their aim was never to represent real life, but to illuminate stories in such a way as to make their moral meanings visible. Because they were in service to Allah, they did not sign their work. Any sign of individuality in the subject or the execution was a flaw. The best miniaturist was the one who could draw a horse or a tree or a woman in exactly the same way as the master who had trained him, and even then he would fall short of perfection. "A miniaturist would have to sketch horses unceasingly for 50 years to be able to truly depict the horse that Allah envisioned and desired." His best picture would be the one he drew out of memory in the dark as, 50 years on, the artist in question was sure to have gone blind. But when an artist followed Frankish fashions and started painting life as he saw it, he was dishonouring his faith.

When the story opens, the miniaturist who first gave voice to these doubts is lying dead at the bottom of a well. He retains the power of speech long enough to say what he stands for. His is the first of a series of monologues that work together to form a sort of verbal miniature, painting a picture not as Allah would see it, but as he might hear it. The form is a brilliant conceit: there is only one speaker who does not flaunt his identity in the manner of the Franks, and that is the murderer. We know this free-floating voice belongs to one of the central characters. But as Black, the artist charged with solving the crime, soon discovers, the murderer has left no trace of his movements in real life. The only clue to his true identity is hidden inside his work.

Time is not on Black's side - after the murderer claims his second victim, the sultan becomes impatient and threatens to torture all the suspects, Black included, unless he can solve the puzzle in three days. The interweaving of human and philosophical intrigue is very much as I remember it in The Name of the Rose, as is the slow, dense beginning and the relentless gathering of pace. The two titles are close enough to suggest that Pamuk is admitting his own debt to a Frankish innovator. But, in my view, his book is by far the better of the two. I would go so far as to say that Pamuk achieves the very thing his book implies is impossible. He has taken his inspiration from western modernist literature, but instead of destroying his 16th-century artists, he illuminates their world as no one has before. What matters in the end is not the identity of the murderer in their midst, but their devotion to an art they know is dying. As compelling and distinctive as they are, it is not "who" they are that counts. It is the loves and losses they have shared. The same can be said of the novel and indeed the city it illuminates between the lines. More than any other book I can think of, it captures not just its past and present contradictions, but also its terrible, timeless beauty. It's almost perfect, in other words. All it needs is the Nobel Prize.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The urban guerrillas Britain forgot