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Mystery and intrigue preserved in translation

by Mark Schreiber

MY NAME IS RED by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Erdag Goknar. London: Faber & Faber Ltd., 2002, 508 pp., £7.99 (paper).
CROSSFIRE by Miyuki Miyabe, translated by Deborah Stuhr Iwabuchi and Anna Husson Isozaki. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2005, 404 pp., 2,600 yen (cloth).

“A city’s intellect,” soliloquizes the murderer in “My Name is Red,” “ought to be measured not by its scholars, libraries, miniaturists, calligraphers and schools, but by the number of crimes insidiously committed on its dark streets over thousands of years. By this logic, doubtless, Istanbul is the world’s most intelligent city.”

This book, winner of the 2003 International IMPAC Dublin literary award, is set in the Ottoman capital in the late 1590s. Its sprawling narrative, combining a murder mystery with discourses on medieval art and religious fervor, and a love story, has rightly elicited comparisons with Umberto Eco’s 1980 best-seller, “The Name of the Rose” — even the titles display a vague similarity — which took place in a northern Italian monastery in 1327.

It seems that the empire’s leading patron of the arts, the Sultan, has put his top artisans to work on yet another lavishly illustrated book to extol the glories of his reign. For reasons that are gradually revealed, one of four key artists is bludgeoned to death and thrown down a well. Was one of his three colleagues the killer?

“Black,” the main protagonist, is not a detective in the modern sense but is expected to track down the culprit to win the hand of his lady love. He calls on the studios of the three suspects to ask abstract questions about style and signature, time and blindness. Within their meandering replies we may find clues to whodunit.

Assembling the clues is by no means easy. Pamuk’s tale twists and turns over 59 chapters, all monologues conveyed in the first person by a stream of animate, and sometimes inanimate, characters. “Black,” narrates 11 chapters; his female cousin, Shekure, narrates eight; the murderer himself, six; and Black’s uncle, five — including one after his death.

Chapter 19 devotes six pages to a counterfeit gold coin from Venice, which relates its life’s story — a sordid, cynical and even funny tale of human greed and corruption — in the first person. A dog, a tree, a picture of a horse and Satan make cameo appearances. Needless to say, this device, plus the fact that most people will be dealing with unfamiliar geography, customs and historical background, will definitely require additional efforts to keep pace with the narrative. In this case, though, persistence will be well worth it. Pamuk, one of Turkey’s most popular contemporary authors, is simply brilliant.

Ready, aim, fire

You’re a Japanese detective trying to figure out why several victims at a crime scene have not merely been burned to death, but are carbonized beyond recognition. Are you prepared to suspend belief and accept that you’re hunting for a killer with superhuman powers?

In “Crossfire,” Miyuki Miyabe combines elements of a police procedural mystery with what is immediately recognizable as a Stephen King-style thriller, showing the influence of King’s “Firestarter” and perhaps a few episodes from the “X-Files” of TV fame.

Junko Aoki, the female protagonist, is capable of pyrokinesis, the ability (hereditary in her case) to generate heat energy. Her powers are formidable; she can instantaneously toast anyone who riles her to a shriveled cinder.

Junko was not looking for trouble — she just wanted to let off a little steam — literally in this case — late one night by releasing her pent-up mental energy at a vat of water in an abandoned factory. But Aoki happens upon a gang of vicious hoods in the process of committing a murder and proceeds to let fly. Her victims’ charred remains leave the J-cops scratching their heads in bewilderment.

Tokyo’s matronly metro police investigator Chikako Ishizu is joined by Detective Makihara, a colleague who, through a tragedy in his own childhood, is convinced that pyrokinesis really exists, and is the explanation for the burned corpses, which keep popping up around Tokyo faster than the cops can pursue their prime suspect. But Makihara is also smart enough to know that relating such a wacky theory to his superiors is likely to get him transferred to duty at a koban (neighborhood police box)in some remote suburb, so he bides his time and builds up his case, eventually convincing Ishizu that there’s a human flame thrower loose somewhere in Tokyo’s 23 wards.

Aoki, who is financially independent, changes her identity often and leaves practically no trail for investigators to pursue. Before the police manage to track her down, she’s approached by a sinister group of vigilantes that wants to recruit her for their own nefarious ends, and it is here that she succumbs to loneliness, displaying the vulnerability that leads to her undoing.

While a bit melodramatic, “Crossfire” features a tightly constructed plot with continuous action and strongly delineated characters. The translation also earns high marks. In 2000, this book was made into a thriller movie, “Pyrokinesis,” starring Akiko Yada, which received favorable reviews.