This book, (a birthday present in 2007 from my siblings) was a beautiful introduction to Istanbul and Orhan Pamuk.
I went to Istanbul later with my mother and will always imagine the fairy-tale harem walls & gardens of Topkapi Palace to be a backdrop of the novel.
We are swiftly transported to an intricate world of 16th century miniaturists of the Ottoman empire. Their art, philosophies, even their apprenticeships are dissected and revealed like the old stories behind miniature portraits. All within the setting of a murder mystery, a love story and fable-like story telling.
One of five talented illustrators from the workshop of Master Osman is murdered, and as he lies dying in a well, his thoughts fly back to his life “before my birth there was infinite time, and after my death, inexhaustible time. I never thought of it before: I’d been living luminously between two eternities of darkness.”
His murder is intricately tied to his work, a secretive attempt by Enishte Effendi to get the finest illustrators and miniaturists of the Sultan to work on a book. This book, unlike all the previous Ottoman work, will be the first attempt to work on the western style. To work in other words, with individuality. To even work on a book like that is regarded as blasphemy- “Has he come to believe, under the sway of recent customs as well as the influence of the Chinese and European Franks that he ought to have an individual painting technique, his own style? As an illustrator, does he want to have a manner, an aspect different from others, and does he attempt to prove this by signing his name somewhere in his work, like the Frankish masters?”
And herein lies the core of the book, the perspectives and techniques of the self-effacing Eastern miniaturists versus the individualistic styles and realism of the Western masters. The eastern philosophy was built on a strict master-apprenticeship regime, where copies upon copies of the work of ancient masters was practiced to perfection, even to blindness. A philosophy where the perspective was always from above, from where Allah Himself was looking down at our world.
On the other hand, the western artists brought out individuality and created new perspectives. How then, were the Ottoman miniaturists to reconcile their years of training when working on Enisthte’s book without fighting a sense of extreme discord and betrayal to the old ways? The murderer, himself torn in this internal conflict has finally taken a side when he says “Indeed, I do believe that style, or for that matter, anything that serves to distinguish one artist from another, is a flaw- not individual character, as some arrogantly claim”.
I can imagine this conflict for I have grown up in a Tibetan household, and the thangka paintings (Buddhist religious paintings which are then framed by brocade and hung) have similar philosophies. The artists in the thangka workshops bend their heads, day in and out, drawing the heads of Buddhas and Boddhisattvas on fine grids. Grids that are drawn on originals and then copied out on blank sheets- or atleast that is how they are initially trained, until the day when they are senior artists, with no grids. The grids stay on in their heads though and it is therefore a regimented structure of painting with very clear rules of where heads and flowers and clouds are supposed to be. Of identifying jewelry and hierarchies of deities trained into the muscle-memory of the artist.
One can only imagine the conflicts then in medieval Turkey, where the one commissioning the book, Enishte himself, has some misgivings: “What filled my Enishte with fear was the notion of situating at the centre of the page-and thereby, the world-something other than what God had intended”.
Meantime there is romance in the household- Enishte’s nephew Black, returns after twelve years of travel. Back at his uncle’s house, and back to his hopes of love in the arms of his cousin Shekure. A presumed war-widow who is young and beautiful, she now has two men vying for her attention- Black and Hasan, her brother-in-law. “Tell me then, does love make one a fool or do only fools fall in love? I have been a clothes peddler and matchmaker for years, and I don’t have the slightest clue”.
In magnum opus style, Pamuk is keeping us busy with multiple perspectives on art from murder suspects, familial angst from lovers and even comic relief by the itinerant Storyteller. At a coffee shop, like all good storytellers, the Storyteller entertains the city’s miniaturists, artists and dervishes. He reads out stories, pulling out rough drafts of the illustrations of the four miniaturists working with Enishte. Because each of the miniaturists are working on separate panels, the Storyteller has sketches to work with; now a dog, a coin, a tree all become props for his satire.
If there is satire, can religious dogma be far behind? “Well now, the admirers of His Excellency Nusret Hoja have completely misunderstood this story; they think he was the target of our account. Could we possibly have said that the great preacher, His Esteemed Excellency, was of uncertain birth?..Clearly, Husret of Erzuru is being confused with Nusret of Erzurum”. This continues until the climax of the book when the enraged followers of Husret Hoja destroy the coffee shop, and murder the story-teller. A telling metaphor of the Islamic world of today.
Meantime, the murderer escalates to further violence when he kills Enishte. With the murder of such a respected master, the royal court tasks Black & Master Osman to find the murderer. Their only clue is a “flaw” in one of the works of the murderer. Ironically, this unconscious style of the murderer is to be used to identify the individual. And given the strict apprenticeship of the illustrators, Master Osman knows that he needs to identify the workshop, the historical basis for this “inherited” flaw.
Why did the murderer draw a horse with a cut in its nostril unlike all the hundreds of horses? “At times, a bird’s wind, the way a leaf holds to a tree, the curves of eaves, the way a cloud floats or the laugh of a woman is preserved for centuries by passing from master to disciple and being shown, taught and memorised over generations. Having learned this detail from his master, the miniaturist believes it to be a perfect form, and is as convinced of its immutability as he is of the glorious Koran’s, and just as he memorises the Koran, he’ll never forget this detail indelibly painted in his memory. However, never forgetting does not mean the master artist will always use this detail.”
And so, the recently married Black (yes, romantics rejoice! he does marry Shekure) and Master Osman are given access to the Royal Treasury. Here they spend three days and nights seeking the origin of the “flaw”. Master Osman begins to lose himself in the royal archives, as he sees the original miniatures. “As I opened new volumes and turned their pages, I sensed the profound sorrow of thousands of illustrators from hundreds of cities large and small, each with a distinctive temperament, each painting under the patronage of a different cruel shah, khan or chieftain, each displaying his talent and succumbing to blindness”. These illustrations have, over the centuries, been bundled and re-bundled with various books as conquerors, Sultans and Shahs, moved from city to city- from Herat to Istanbul, and Khorasan and Samarkhand, from workshop to workshop, styles copied over the centuries.
Finally, and after personal turmoil in the mind of Master Osman, the two find the origin of the horse with a cut nose. In a few pages, Pamuk transports us to a world of Mongolian invaders who used to cut their horses’s nostrils so the animals might breathe easier and travel further. This points to illustrators who had training in workshops, akin to gharanas, in Herat, learning from master genealogies that were “influenced either by a Mongol horse that he’d seen or by another miniaturist who’d made a Mongol horse with clipped nostrils”.
The murder is solved theoretically, but other concerns quickly raise its head. Suffice it to say that as the murderer himself lies dying, his dying thoughts rise above “the muddy ground upon which my head had fallen, I could neither see my murderer nor my satchel full of gold pieces and pictures, which I still wanted to cling to tightly. These things were behind me, in the direction of the hill leading down to the sea and Galleon Harbour which I would never reach.”