Literary Companion: Istanbul and My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk


The first in our “Literary Companion” series, I want to recommend My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk to those about to visit (or who have just recently visited) Istanbul, Turkey. The novel, originally titled Benim Adim Kirmizi, was written in 1998 and translated into English in 2001. In 2006, Pamuk received the Nobel Prize in Literature; this novel established his reputation and contributed to his Nobel Prize. Those familiar with the works of James Joyce, Franz Kafka, and Vladimir Nabokov will notice their significant influence on Pamuk’s writing. Since its publication, My Name is Red has been translated into more than 60 languages.


The novel’s main characters are miniaturists in the Ottoman Empire. Miniaturists practiced the art of Ottoman book painting and illustration. In the first chapter, an illustrator is murdered; Pamuk jumps into a Borges-like playfulness, immediately beginning to incorporate aspects of metafiction and self-referential language. Each chapter has a different narrator, though there are often thematic and chronological connections between chapters (a la James Joyce’s Ulysses). Several additional voices, such as the corpse of the murdered miniaturist, a coin, Satan, two dervishes, and the color red appear throughout the novel. The book incorporates mystery, romance, and philosophical puzzles throughout, all the while referencing the rule of Ottoman Sultan Murad III in 16th century Istanbul.


This is an excellent book to read if you are planning to visit Istanbul in the near future—or if you have just returned from a trip. Pamuk, a Turkish national, describes Istanbul in vivid detail, allowing readers to identify the structures remaining from the 16th century as they explore the historic peninsula. Additionally, the reign of Murad III was an interesting period for the Ottomans; it was a time of financial stress, but the Ottoman Empire reached its greatest extend in the Middle East under the ruler. Fans of this part of the world, history, geography, and literature will undoubtedly enjoy Orhan Pamuk’s masterpiece.


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