My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, dramatised by Ayse Menon

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BBC Radio 4, 3-10 August 2008

At one level My Name is Red is an historical detective story reminiscent of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Set in the Ottoman Empire of 1590, it focuses on the search for the murderer of an artist commissioned to create a book of miniatures for the Sultan.  However it soon becomes evident that Pamuk is not really interested in the plot per se, concerning himself rather with wider questions such as the role of the artist in society and what constitutes ‘original’ or ‘imitative’ work. He identifies the artists as powerful figures – one inspired by the deity who is entrusted with the responsibility of communicating that inspiration to a wider audience. At the same time artists are potentially subversive; their views frequently run counter to the dominant ideologies within society. Consequently they tend to be marginalized or, worse still, left to fend for themselves with no opportunity to disseminate their thoughts either verbally or in print. The only way they can guarantee prosperity is to accept the dominant values and thereby imitate rather than create.


My Name is Red also reflects on the nature of truth, and whether it can be communicated to individual people. Artists can only seek after it in the hope that on some future occasion it might be revealed to them. Pamuk plays on the idea of ‘illumination’ which can mean to light up (as in a medieval illuminated manuscript) or equated with divine illumination – the truth that artists can discover.


The novel has been characterized as postmodern in structure, eschewing the conventions of a linear narrative and playing with past, present and future in its concern to reflect on artistic creation. Radio proves an ideal medium for this kind of text; there is no need for period settings or costumes, and temporal distinctions simply do not exist. Drama productions take place in a continuous present, with each voice following another. This proved especially advantageous for John Dryden’s adaptation of My Name is Red, in which morality-play personae such as Death commented on the action, while a disembodied voice representing the color red informed listeners about its presence everywhere in the world, too hot for hope, yet seen by those who could not see. This metaphor once again reminded us about the importance of artists to society’s future health; they might be physically blind, but they have been given the power to analyze the world more keenly than mere mortals.


I have to say that this two-part adaptation was only intermittently successful. In the second episode in particular it seemed as if the director had rather lost interest in the novel as he presented it as an Ottoman version of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, whose main conflict focused on the idea of success. On the one hand one could pursue a Salieri-like course of action, and acquire a reputation amongst one’s peers. On the other hand one could live a life of poverty, while continuously seeking after artistic truth a la Mozart. This production suggested that material success is a temporary thing; true artists are more preoccupied with the quixotic process of seeking the unattainable.


Recorded by the BBC in Istanbul with an all-Turkish cast, this was the first adaptation of one of Pamuk’s works that I had ever encountered. I hope it will not be the last.