Wednesday, June 01, 2016

I am a tree

A recent piece for Atlas Obscura described some of the stories narrated by non-humans discussed in The Secret Life of Things: Animals, Objects and It-Narratives in 18th Century England, edited by Mark Blackwell.  Such stories became so successful that 'by 1781, a bored reviewer in The Critical Review could complain that “this mode of making up a book, and styling it the Adventures of a Cat, a Dog, a Monkey, a Hackney-coach, a Louse, a Shilling, a Rupee, or — any thing else, is grown so fashionable now, that few months pass which do not bring one of them under our inspection.”'  This made me wonder whether there are examples of it-narratives recounted by paintings - imagine The Picture of Dorian Gray as an eponymous novel, with its central character only able to wonder at the changes it found itself undergoing.  I suppose though that paintings of things - a Monkey, a Hackney-coach - would be less appealing to write about than the things themselves.  Landscape paintings would seem still less promising (unless they were used to tell the story of a particular place), though I can imagine an interesting narrative of the life of, say, a Van Gogh painting, from its birth in a windy field outside Arles to its incarceration in an airtight Tokyo bank vault.

You sometimes come across versions of it-narratives in contemporary literature.  There are a sequence of them - a dog, a horse, a gold coin - in Orhan Pamuk's novel My Name is Red.  This book is set in Istanbul among Sultan Murat III's miniaturists, whose work was starting to come under the influence of Venetian painting, the art of 'the Franks'.  One chapter is told from the point of view of a picture of a tree and it is the nearest thing I can think of at the moment to an it-narrative by a landscape drawing.  The tree begins by apologising that 'at this moment, there are no other slender trees beside me, no seven–leaf steppe plants, no dark billowing rock formations which at times resemble Satan or a man and no coiling Chinese clouds.  Just the ground, the sky, myself and the horizon.'  So to be precise, this chapter is narrated not by an entire landscape (a recent development in sixteenth century Western art) but by one of the four elements in a simplified version of a landscape.

There isn't really a story-telling tree though.  As we read, we realise there is a storyteller in a coffee house, improvising his tale on the basis of a sketch of a tree.  Or, to be more precise, what we read is the story of this storyteller, recollected later by a character called Orhan who was a young boy at the time of the events of the novel.  And even this is a simplification of a book that gets more complex the closer you look into it...  But to return to that tree: I want to share here the last words of its story (and doing so in English I must quote another narrator, translator Erdağ Göknar, rather than Orhan Pamuk).  These two short paragraphs on art and trees convey an important idea that underlies the plot of the novel and drives one of the court miniaturists in it to murder.   
'A great European master miniaturist and another great master artist are walking through a Frank meadow discussing virtuosity and art. As they stroll, a forest comes into view before them. The more expert of the two says to the other: "Painting in the new style demands such talent that if you depicted one of the trees in this forest, a man who looked upon that painting could come here, and if he so desired, correctly select that tree from among the others."

'I thank Allah that I, the humble tree before you, have not been drawn with such intent. And not because I fear that if I'd been thus depicted all the dogs in Istanbul would assume I was a real tree and piss on me: I don't want to be a tree, I want to be its meaning.'


Hels said...

"I want to share here the last words of its story (and in doing so quote, of course, the words of translator Erdağ Göknar rather than the Turkish of Orhan Pamuk)". Do you think the translator was not remaining true to the writer's language? In just this case or in all literature?

Plinius said...

You are overestimating my knowledge of Turkish! I've rephrased this sentence to make it clearer that I'm still referring here to layers of narration and stories within stories.