Tough review, this time. I bought the book by fortuitious circumstance a few weeks before Orhan Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize, and once the whole bruhaha about his receiving the award happened, I set the book aside not to be biased by it.
In Hawai`i, I had plenty time to read, and I took this book and went from end to end in record slow time. Which is part of what makes this a hard review to write down.
The background is fantastic: Istanbul a century after the Turks conquered it from the Greeks, destroying a thousand years of Byzantine rule with an empire that lasted only 700 years, but made it to spectacular prominence and almost incredible reach.
Specifically, the book deals with miniatures. While Islam teaches that depictions of humans are no good, there is a whole series of beautiful manuscripts that contain not only the work of calligraphers, but that of miniaturists as well. The story will deal with the miniaturists that are trying to prepare a book for the Sultan, and the controversy that is lit when it is clear that the book is going to be in the style of the Frankish (i.e. Western and Christian) instead of the Persian masters.
A murder happens, another one follows suit, and torture is on the menu if the killer is not found pronto. So the book turns from a study of a society long gone and artists long forgotten to a murder mystery, a classic whodunit.
And that’s where the woes start. We are used, in historic whodunit, to the infinite resourcefulness of an Umberto Eco, or even just the simple plain mysteries of Harry Potter. Pamuk, instead, has a weak plot with not many turns and a predictable ending. After all, one has to remember, there were only three suspects, and we as readers don’t really get to connect to any of the three. They will just be referenced by their code names.
The other thing that grated on this reader was the translation, which made one long for the ability to actually read the original. Names are sometimes translated, sometimes left in the original – so the murderers are known as Stork, Olive, and Butterfly. The nicknames are actually explained only once, but the explanation adds nothing to their existence. I wished the translator had kept the original names.
All in all, an interesting experience if you want to read about the period, but a weak plot and a bad translation ruin the book of an author that – on merits of language alone – merits the Nobel Prize he received.