Meshing the tropes of the tavern storyteller with the recent fashion for historical mysteries ("The Name of the Rose" and "An Instance of the Fingerpost"), Pamuk's novel could cause a sensation here, just as it did in his native Turkey.
Set in the 16th century, at the tipping point when the Ottoman Empire was being transformed from the world's most feared superpower into an imperial backwater, Pamuk's story works on three levels. As a murder mystery, it asks who killed a gilder named Elegant, employed by an atelier of miniaturists, and then Enishte, the man who was funding the atelier?
On another level, this is a story of ideas. In coffeehouses frequented by poets and artists, the backwash from the European Renaissance is starting to call into question fundamental principle of Islamic culture. Enishte, in particular, has become enamored of the perspectival method favored by Venetian painters, and wants his artists to achieve a comparable representation of reality, rather than abiding by traditional rules of representation. Pamuk not only immerses us in this debate; he makes the pictures of dogs, Satan, gold coins, etc., "talk," imitating the shadow-play method of traveling storytellers. His own ability to draw stunning pictures makes Istanbul as grimly vivid as Raskolnikov's St. Petersburg.
On the third level, this is a love story. Black, a clerk and Enishte's nephew, must win Enishte's beautiful daughter, the widowed Shekure. The book's jeweled prose and alluring digressions, nesting stories within stories, make one want to say of Pamuk what one of the characters says of the head of the miniaturists' coterie, Osman: "...God had blessed him with an enchanting artistic gift and the intellect of a jinn."
Widely respected abroad for his previous novels, "The White Castle" and "The New Life," Pamuk should gain new readers here with this more accessible, charming and intellectually satisfying, narrative.