I’m giving a local (currently online) bookclub a try, and this is the book for this month. I’m very happy with how this is pushing me out of the genre-spiral that I’ve been in– I read like 20 early 20th century big house mysteries in March, and while they were a lot of fun, after a while it felt like I was just reading to escape other things, I didn’t really have to focus (thanks to Agatha et al, I’m very familiar with the genre), and it just wasn’t where I wanted to be mentally. So this is a change and a welcome one. I’m 12 chapters in, and this book requires a focus that was missing in my reading last month.
The book is set in the Ottoman Empire in 1591. This is a period of the globe and of world history that I’m super vague about, so I’m working to combat that. (Excellent opportunity! I did the same with my first read of Les Misérables— I was very unclear about French politics after about 1792, and so I did a deep dive into history and factions while I read. Yes, it was super fun.) So far, I’ve watch a few short Youtube videos, and I *think* there’s a chapter in The Silk Road that I should return to.
Other influences– literary, not historical: Pamuk changes narrator just about every chapter, so you get a more diffuse picture of the world/events rather than a single narrative/viewpoint. This technique calls into question the idea of a singular truth (think Rashoman) and is generally one of the hallmarks of the “postmodern”– ugh, really don’t care for genre divisions like that, because they end up silo-ing literature off, but whatever. Using it for the moment. And not just people narrate– so far an illustration of a dog and an illustration of a tree have weighed in. I keep going back to reread, because I feel/fear/know I’m missing stuff, but I don’t think you can get everything from a good book with one read. So embracing the partial understanding that I’ll get from this, and holding space for later knowledge.
The plot so far: Elegant, a miniaturist, has been killed. The first chapter is narrated by his corpse. A guy (named Black) is called back to investigate by his uncle (Enishte, also a miniaturist), he’s been exiled from the city (Constantinople/Istanbul) for 12 years (also by his uncle, Enishte) after he fell in love with his (very young!) cousin Shekure. (He was 24, she was 12. He’s now 36, she’s 24.) In the intervening 12 years, Shekure has married and had two sons; her husband, a soldier, has been missing presumed dead for the last 4 years.
Underlying tensions: oh so many. Relationship between Shekure and Black. Who murdered Elegant, and why. And perhaps most fundamental: the nature of representative art. If the artist can be recognized by the style, then it is pride; if the subject can be specifically identified (this tree, rather than the ideal tree), then it is an individual style, and therefore sin. I don’t quite understand the representative art conflict yet, but it is a major element here. So far it’s been stated that art is in service to narrative– pages excerpted from illuminated manuscripts, allowed to circulate (or be sold to the Europeans as single images) are a corruption of purpose. There’s a contrast drawn here between European art (which is individualistic, a portrait exactly represents an individual, not an ideal) and Islamic art.