My Name is Red – Orhan Pamuk

I visited the cemetery overlooking the Golden Horn and prayed for my mother and for the uncles who’d passed away in my absence. The earthy smell of mud mingled with my memories. Someone had broken an earthenware pitcher beside my mother’s grave. For whatever reason, gazing at the broken pieces, I began to cry. Was I crying for the dead or because I was, strangely, still only at the beginning of my life after all these years? Or was it because I’d come to the end of my life’s journey? A faint snow fell. Entranced by the flakes blowing here and there, I became so lost in the vagaries of my life that I didn’t notice the black dog staring at me from a dark corner of the cemetery.

A whodunnit, written in a kaleidoscope of voices, including the murderer and starting with the murdered, My Name is Red is a book about snow. I mean, it seems to snow all the time, snow is everywhere, sometimes several times in the same paragraph. Aside from the snow, it’s confusing to start with. In fact, as I reached chapter 9, I realised that Chapters 1 and 2 were completely different people, so that reset my points and pinged me off down slightly different tracks. So I read them again and then continued, oh Pamuk, you can’t outwit me that easily. Well I mean you did. but I get there eventually.

Elegant Effendi has been murdered! I know this because he tells me in the first chapter and he’s quite annoyed and upset about it, and he really doesn’t like his murderer, or the fact that no one know’s he’s been murdered, because he’s at the bottom of a well. A couple of chapters later the murderer is talking to me, but who is it? Black is called in to try and find out what happened to Elegant by his uncle, and as he investigates the world of Istanbul’s world of miniaturists, we are presented the story through the eyes of the people he interacts with as well as himself.

It’s all a bit complicated you see. Black’s uncle, also the father to the beautiful, capricious Shekure, who everyone in the world thinks is beautiful, has been commissioned by the Sultan to create a magnificent book, in the style of the damned Franks. This goes against everything that the miniaturists, the holy men and everyone in between believe in, as well as a tradition stretching back generations. But as in all times, a few coins slipped here and there, some men’s souls do not shine so bright as the luminous reflection of a few gold or silver pieces, the book is slowly put together, without anyone but Black’s uncle seeing the whole thing. What doesn’t help poor Black is that rumours are going around surrounding this book, and a zealous preacher is inciting hatred against everything that is not traditional (now that sounds vaguely familiar). It’s not all inkwells and innuendo about artist’s quill’s though. There’s a love interest. Black is in love (as is the murderer) with Shekure. She has moved back into her uncles following advances made by her missing husbands brother but she cannot hide forever, and her two young children need a dad, is Black man enough? While navigating a murder investigation, Black and Shekure court each other through the seller of wares and local cupid Esther, one of the books more engaging characters.

Pamuk uses a highly original style in My Name Is Red that means you have to think while you read, and being a man, meaning I can’t multitask, it takes a while to get used to, but never the less, it is still hugely enjoyable. The city, it’s people, their habits, their daily chores and errands, their food are all here, observed and followed by the characters as they narrate their way around their work and the murder that has engaged even the Sultan himself.

Not just a captivating murder mystery (a genre I have zero interest in, while I was intrigued about who the murderer was, I did not work it out until roughly the same time as Black) My Name Is Red is also an intricate look at the world of miniaturist painting in Istanbul, and across the Islamic world, it’s great proponents and place in the scheme of the religion and the more earthly rulers. While each of the subjects tell us how they are the best of their time, some rail against the Frankish methods, using perspective, painting portraits, that take painting away from how God sees the world, to how people see it, ultimately making people the centre piece of art, and not God himself. Yet still there is the recognition that everything they have achieved, everything they have striven for and created will be swept away by this new style from the West, a recognition and often fear that resonates particularly loudly today.

I’ve read Pamuk’s Istanbul, which I loved, even if I thought Pamuk himself came across as a little weird, eccentric, let’s go with eccentric. But I loved his prose, his view of the world, and I wanted to read more of his fiction after A Strangeness in my Mind¬†which I also loved. Now, I think I’ll wrap up against the snow, and read another.

Off the waterfront near Jibali, from all the way in the middle of the Golden Horn, I gazed spitefully at Istanbul. The snow-capped domes shone brightly in the sunlight that broke abruptly through the clouds. The larger and more colourful a city is, the more places there are to hide one’s guilt and sin; the more crowded it is, the more people there are to hide behind. A city’s intellect ought to be measured not by it’s scholars, libraries, miniaturists, calligraphers and schools, but by the number of crimes insidiously committed on it’s dark streets over thousands of years. By this logic, doubtless, Istanbul is the world’s most intelligent city.

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Cloud Road – John Harrison

Many wealthy people did not invest in business. Instead they saved and hoarded, and when they died they bequeathed their loot to the church; that is, if death granted them time to reveal where it was hidden. Even now, when colonial houses are demolished or damaged by earthquake, treasure may spill out among the rubble and dust, testaments to misers who would not trust a wife, son, daughter or lawyer, and died with their secret hidden in their dried-up hearts. The fortunes passing to the church would have embarrassed Croesus. The gold and silver which smothers the church altars is not leaf, but plate, as thick as card. The architects’ only problem was when to stop; frequently they didn’t.

I looked forward to this one. No preconceptions based on random comments in other books for John Harrison. Actually, that’s a lie, I did have preconceptions, but good ones. John Harrison seemed to visit the places I wanted to visit, he seemed to be interested in the things I’m interested in, he has written the books I wanted to write (I mean one day, definitely), so in a sense he has stolen my dreams and made my life pointless. But it did mean that I wanted to read his books.

Cloud Road sees Harrison walking the Inca Road, from Quito to Pisco. Well mostly walking, sometime there were buses, if the Inca Road happened to be under a highway for example, fair enough, it would be rubbish to walk and just as rubbish to read about. It is among the freezing peaks and humid valleys that Cloud Road is at it’s most fascinating, meeting people barely scraping by on subsistence living who never the less offer help and shelter to a weary stranger who was sometimes shouting at a donkey.

While pounding the Andes, Harrison intermingles local and Inca history, in ‘proper’ travel book style, which is one of the reasons I was so looking forward to reading it. If Isherwood was a jaunt through the countries, Cloud Road is a trek through the history. Half way through his partner, Elaine, joins him for a period, including for the hiring of the aforementioned donkey and a more personal side is revealed, normally hidden from the reader.

Like a trek, Cloud Road had points I enjoyed and points that I didn’t. Some of Harrison’s simile’s were incredibly random, now, don’t misunderstand me, I like a random simile as much as anyone, but some of these were so random they just jarred. This wasn’t too bad in itself, but everything was drowning in adjectives, so at times it became an onslaught of words that didn’t quite go together. That said, when it did work, it was beautiful.
While reading, I shoved my bookmark in the back of the book, and on one occasion, on the last page. While taking it out I happened to read the last few lines. I don’t know if this firmed the opinion I already had, or gave me the opinion in the first place, but it felt like the reader was being set up for something. Harrison’s numerous references to Elaine, his feelings, the way he portrayed their behaviour meant that you felt that something was going to happen. When it does, and it does on the last page, it sort of made me feel that this was what the book was about, and in fact, maybe it was, a catharsis that Harrison wrapped up part and parcel with the journey and the book, everything was certainly intertwined. There is no reason why Harrison should not have put it in, it is a human that is travelling and writing, I can’t say why it shaped my perception of the book, it’s just that after finishing, it felt like that was what the book was actually about, and everything else was just filler. I suspect the problem is with me, it normally is.

But my moaning aside, I enjoyed Cloud Road. Harrison is genuinely funny. His description of how travellers with animals normally work things out and then stating how much he hates his donkey was laugh out loud hilarious. His interest in the Inca’s, is pitched at just the right level throughout the book to not intimidate/bore the tears off a casual reader, and, total respect to the man, he walked the Inca Highway, something I would love to do myself. Next up I quite fancy 1519: A journey to the End of Time. Hopefully Dapple will turn up.

I had seen no lake on the map. ‘How far?’ I asked. He gave that strange far-away look that I was used to when details about time and distance were required, as if I had asked him to name all the molecules in a cow. We took the risk, and continued. It was the first tough walking of the day: a steep, dry gully eroded into badlands, but at the top was a reedy lake, half a mile across. A fish leaped, and a retriever dog trotted through the trees and adopted us for the night. The stove behaved, the sun set gloriously and the new moon descended on her back, Venus following. Children’s shouts echoed over the water: they wouldn’t let the day die.

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The Condor and the Cows – Christopher Isherwood

It was, almost certainly, her idea. He’s a little unwilling. He can’t quite relax. For him, as for so many Americans of his kind, a pleasure journey is just another sort of investment – a sound one, most likely, but he has got to watch it. With his puzzled Colegiate frown, he is perpetually trying to assess the whole undertaking in terms of value and service. He isn’t in the least stingy – all his instincts are generous – but he’s determined¬†not to be gypped. He inspects the ship, the cabin, the food, the stewards, the dance band, the amusements – and asks himself: ‘Are these the best return we can reasonably expect for our money?’

So I knew about this from a reference in Paul Theroux’s ‘The Old Patagonian Express’, which in some ways put me off, it seemed almost a bitchy comment about Isherwood being bitchy in his book when travelling through the same place. Now, admittedly it is absurd to base an opinion on a whole book by an author you have never read on a comment made by another author, but you know, what can I say. I’m an idiot.

To be fair, Paul Theroux was my travel writing tsar, and for a good long time he embodied everything I thought travel writing was and should be, although that has since changed. But throwing all that aside, the lack of travel books about South America that I haven’t read, and want to read, meant that I thought I’d give this a go.

Firstly, for no reason whatsoever, I always thought it was the Condor and the Crows. Hilariously this actually continued after I started reading, until Isherwood explains in his introduction why he called it the Condor and the Cows. Cows? Have I picked up the wrong book? What happened to the Crows?

Leaving my stupidity behind, and ignoring the question that if I can’t even properly read the title should I be reading at all, I ploughed in.
Straight away I loved Isherwood’s style. Slightly patronising, condescending, but off hand, not deliberately mean but sharp and acerbic, poking fun at the locals, other travellers and the reader. It is exactly my humour.

An exquisite flamingo-pink oil tank is recommended to connoisseurs of industrial architecture.

I found it interesting that compared to other travel books I’ve read, where the author was heading into the unknown because of some childhood obsession or chance encounter, or where the author was recreating steps trodden in history, Isherwood travelled because he was commissioned to. I loved that there was no agenda, just a man travelling through various countries giving his opinion on them. I loved the bits at the end of each country where he feels he has to present an opinion on the people and lists out what other people have said that he’s met and throws in his own thoughts. It’s almost like a fake travel book, there is no reason for it, or for Isherwood in particular to be doing it. As Pico Iyer mentions in his introduction, Isherwood’s Spanish was awful and he did pretty much zero research. But it still feels fresh for all that, he is not on a journey of discovery, he is not recreating or retreading history, he has no narrative to squeeze his journey and experience into and so relates what he sees and experiences as it is.

What did throw me every now and again is that Isherwood travelled in 1947. It was before so many things had happened that I am aware of, that the odd mention of something completely threw me and I had to reset the timeline in my head, which far from creating distance, actually gave the book an extra level of interest for me.

Isherwood puts no small amount of effort into the travelling and the subsequent writing of the book, and although Pico Iyer sketches Isherwood the man in the intro, it is the places that Isherwood visits that I’m interested in. That didn’t stop Isherwood forcing himself through into my consciousness, and there are some clever perceptions from him that cropped up now and again, and only became significant when you reset your brain to 1947.

They try to cram the whole continent into an annual vacation which would be barely long enough for a visit to a single city. This kind of total travel is likely to become more and more popular, until we have a generation which has seen all the world’s principal airports – and nothing else. At the Hotel Maury I met a dazed American lady who was suffering so severely from travel-indigestion that she seemed uncertain where she was, where she’d been, or which way round she was going.

I’m glad I got over the one comment from Theroux and read the Condor and the Cows, well done me! As different from a traditional travel book as Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, Isherwood casts an curious and humorous gaze over South America, without a crow in sight.

Later, I wished that I had taken enough to get properly relaxed, for our driver, urged on by a party of soldiers who had joined us, decided to finish the trip at a speed befitting the occasion. I sat down on the floor of the truck, preferring to forsee nothing of the immediate future, and tried, quite unsuccessfully, to fix my mind on what is eternal. Several times, I thought we must surely be airborne. The soldiers treated the ride as a serious sporting event. As each new hazard approached – a twist in the road, a flooded hollow, or a car coming in the opposite direction – they talked together with anxious excitement, weighing our chances. At a particularly alarming bump, one of them was thrown headlong into my lap. Caskey crouched beside me scowling crossly, as he always does on the rare occasions he is scared.

 

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