Orhan Pamuk: Book Club

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BBC Radio 4, 6 May 2010
Presented by James Naughtie, this episode of Radio 4's monthly series looked at My Name is Red, in the company of Pamuk and a specially invited audience of readers. From Pamuk we learned that the novel works on several levels - as a murder mystery, a love story and an exegesis of the world of the Ottoman miniaturist. Pamuk was particularly preoccupied with the act of creation, likening his writing technique to that of the painter. In early life he had wanted to pursue an artistic rather than a literary career: My Name is Red gave him the chance to develop that facility, using a pen (or laptop) rather than a paintbrush.
Pamuk revealed an enduring fascination with the miniaturists' art; their ability to fix the moment, devoid of temporal considerations (i.e. past, present and future), and thereby difficult to define in terms of western rationalism. The act of creation is more significant than the meaning produced. This helps to explain why My Name is Red seems so elusive; told by at least twenty narrators, the book resists facile classifications. Even presenter Naughtie seemed at a loss as to how to describe it, eventually settling on calling it "a page-turner."
As the programme unfolded, and the readers asked questions of Pamuk, I became aware of an intellectual chasm opening up between them. The questions - focusing on plot, characterization and gender issues - were all designed to elaborate the meaning of the novel. Pamuk answered them as best he could, with infinite charm and patience, but I got the distinct feeling that he couldn't satisfy his audience. It's very difficult - especially for readers brought up in the traditions of western literary criticism - to contemplate a novel which is actually about the act of creation, and how an artist feels as his hands move across the page (or document). No one can feel that way unless they have written themselves; and even then, they might be unable to empathize with the Ottoman miniaturist's art (which provides the inspiration for Pamuk's book). 
Perhaps the best way to read My Name is Red is to let it wash over you; rather than trying to 'explain' it, just enjoy its language, its allusions and its sheer playfulness. Pamuk himself admitted in the programme that he liked to have his readers smiling.