How truly ambitious are you?


I’ve just been on holiday in Turkey with some friends. Before we went, my mate had a great idea (thanks, DZ!). To understand the context of this fascinating nation and get a sense of its history and place in the world, he suggested we read Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red.

The novel is set in Istanbul in the 16th century. To celebrate the thousandth anniversary of the Hegira – the emigration of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina, and the beginning of the Muslim calendar – the Sultan has commissioned the Ottoman court ‘miniaturists’ to create a book of paintings which will glorify Allah and depict the key players of the Ottoman empire in a favourable light. There is much debate among the miniaturists about whether Venetian and Frankish (European) styles should influence the work or whether it should remain resolutely singular (life-like depictions of animals, people and nature are considered an affront to Islam, as they are seen as being in competition with the only true creative force – Allah). ‘Style’ as a concept is a controversial topic, with the most popular school of thought being that it’s a negative force, utilized by painters who are driven by ego rather than the love of painting and Allah. These weak-minded artists (in the eyes of the more conservative thinkers) seek to hide their signatures in obscure places within their paintings or mark out their work with recognizable flourishes such as the way they depict a horse’s nostrils. The book becomes controversial when word gets out that some of the paintings within it are blasphemous and one of the painters is brutally murdered. Soon after, the man who commissioned the book on behalf of the Sultan is also murdered and the main character is given three days to catch the murderer or he – along with the three key miniaturists – will be tortured to death one after the other. He’s a hardcore warrior and not particularly scared of being tortured or even dying. But he’s just married the beautiful woman he’s been pining for for 12 years and wouldn’t mind getting to spend some time snuggling up in the sack with her.

While the hunt for the murderer drives the story forwards, Pamuk combines sublime prose with postmodern techniques to give us an intense rendering of the place and period. Each chapter is narrated by a different character in the story: one by a dog, one by a coin, one by ‘death’, one by a drawing of a tree. The chapter that gives the book its title is narrated by the colour red. At the novel’s conclusion Pamuk works himself into the story in a very clever and surprising way. Both directly and in more subtle ways, My Name Is Red poses a mind-bending array of philosophical questions. What is art and what is its purpose? Is style ego? Can love exist without sacrifice? Is all doctrine evil? How do intelligent people come to believe in sets of dogma which are blatant idiocy?

These are questions which have been bouncing around my mind for days and will be for months to come. But alongside these ideas, My Name Is Red also got me thinking about ambition. The novel is executed flawlessly – an achievement which would have taken phenomenal craft and relentless dedication (as Woody Allen once said, “80% of success is showing up.”) But beyond that, I’m interested in the ambition it would take to even conceive of a work of such scope and depth. Or, to put it another way, the balls to think you could pull something like this off.’ I’m fascinated by the sphere of human potential and a book like this leaves me equally in awe, inspired and bewildered. I’ve had the same sense of not ‘how did he do it?’ but ‘how did he even come to believe he could do it?’ when I’ve read things like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Don DeLillo’s Underworld. Work like this makes me think that what passes for ambition for most people – be they authors, ad people, footballers, journalists or business people – is setting the bar too low. It makes me wonder what I could achieve if I had the bottle to think big, properly big. To really take off the safety catch, neutralize my fear of failure and cut loose. On my next brief, on my writing, on my career, on my life. But allowing my thoughts to wander out of their comfort zone, away from the modest ambition of what’s probably achievable and into the hardcore unchartered territory of what might be achievable without the internal brakes subconsciously on, makes me shit-scared. And I think great artists, people like Pamuk, are simply people who’ve got used to that feeling, people who won’t back down to self doubt. I don’t think they’re fearless, just that they’ll front up to fear, out-stare it on a daily basis. What a terrifying but magnificent way to live that must be.


About antmelder
Executive Creative Director at Host/Havas Sydney; passionate vegetarian; lover of books, boxing and Bruce Springsteen.

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