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Review: Orhan Pamuk’s “The Red-Haired Woman”

In many ways, Orhan Pamuk’s most recent novel, The Red-Haired Woman, draws on the major themes of his two previous novels: The Museum of Innocence (2009) and A Strangeness in My Mind (2015).  The former—which I believe is the finest novel written by anyone during the past decade—painstakingly describes a case of unrequited love; the second, Istanbul’s growth from minor city to huge international metropolis during the last century as seen through the eyes of a street vendor. Pamuk—whom I regard as the greatest living novelist (he won the Nobel Prize in 2006)—writes about the obsessive qualities of love with disturbing precision. Turkey’s largest city, where he was born and has lived much of his adult life, is so fixed in his personae that he published Istanbul: Memories and the City, in 2005, and later this year, his publisher will bring out an expanded edition of the book. How ironic that many of us who love the city fear to return to Istanbul now that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s president, has turned the country into an unstable dictatorship, government by thuggery.

The narrator of The Red-Haired Woman, whose name is Cem, is sixteen years old at the beginning of the story. His father, a pharmacist and a leftist, has abandoned the boy and his mother, pretty much reducing them to poverty. It’s 1984, as the story opens, and Cem, who wants to be an engineer, begins an apprenticeship with a welldigger, because the money will be sufficient to pay for a cram course, which—if he is successful with his test scores—will result in a university scholarship. That’s the only way he’ll be able to attend the university. Cem and Master Mahmut, the welldigger, quickly bond. Cem observes of the 43-year-old man, “Master Mahmut took much more of an interest in my life than my father ever had: he told me stories and taught me lessons; he never forgot to ask if I was all right, if I was hungry, whether I was tired.”

The well the two of them dig is on barren land thirty kilometers outside of Istanbul, in Öngören.  Each day, using a windlass (which they first must build), the older man digs down into the earth from the inside of the deepening well, and Cem empties the buckets of soil and stone he cranks up to the surface using the windlass. Cement is mixed to line the newly exposed walls each day. Master Mahmut believes that the project will take ten days or two weeks and the depth to reach water will be about ten meters.  But no water is discovered after two weeks. The landowner (who wants to open a textile mill on the property) becomes impatient as the days drag on. After close to a month, with no water in sight though the well has reached twenty-five meters, the landowner stops paying their salaries.

While the month dragged on, in the evenings Cem and Master Mahmut frequently wander into Öngören where the older man buys supplies needed for the well and cigarettes, and the two of them stop for a meal or a drink. On one of these occasions, Cem sees a beautiful red-haired woman, who gives him a friendly look, seemingly implying, I know you! Cem will learn that she is part of a theatrical group, catering to the soldiers in near-by barracks, and although he initially thought she was younger, he concludes that she may be ten years his elder.

This is where Cem’s obsession about the red-haired woman begins. He can’t get her out of his mind. Sometimes he comes into town on his own to look for the woman, after learning where she is staying. The theatrical group (“Theater of Morality Tales”) requires that patrons be older than Cem is to watch their somewhat risqué presentations, but her husband (also in the troupe) finally permits Cem to watch their show. After that evening, he is totally smitten, cannot get the woman out of his mind, and cannot forget her while he’s helping Master Mahmut construct the well. Worse, the woman seems drawn to him and one night after the two meet, the red-haired woman seduces him, after first confessing that she is old enough, thirty-three, to be his mother. Thereafter, the sixteen-year-old’s fantasies of the red-haired woman include—as crazy as this may appear—her divorce and subsequent marriage to him, as poor Cem is literally driven wild with memories of their night together.

Before Cem’s apprenticeship to the welldigger, he worked in a bookstore and wanted to be a writer. His interests were particularly drawn to fables, old stories, including Greek drama, especially the tragedy of Oedipus. One day working for Master Mahmut, Cem decides to tell the older man the story of Oedipus, and the welldigger is visibly disturbed by the tale. From the red-haired woman, he hears of a variant on the Oedipus story: “The Shahnameh…a compendium of forgotten stories, the lives of kings, sultans, and heroes of the past.” Among these tales—a story about Rostam and his son, Sohrab—is a variation on the Oedipus tragedy. Instead of patricide, the story reverses the murder, so the father kills the son, i.e., filicide, a story that will become another one of Cem’s obsessions later in life as he researches variants of both tragedies.

More I cannot tell you about the explosive incidents that build upon Cem’s relationships with Master Mahmut and the red-haired woman, his desires to be a writer even though he becomes a successful engineer, his life-long interest in Turkish and Greek myths and tales. Thus, I make a warning. The Red-Haired Woman is too good a story to have some reviewer tell you what happens beyond what I have already described. So do not read another review of the novel and DO NOT read the flap copy before you begin reading this magnificent novel. Begin the experience as Pamuk intended and you will discover your own obsession with how the novel is going to unfold.

Orhan Pamuk’s The Red-Haired Woman is full of surprises, terrible events, horrendous decisions that sixteen-year-old apprentice Cem makes that will bite back much later in his life. The novel is story-telling at its finest, with layers of meanings that draw upon some of the greatest myths of Western literature, plus all its attendant emotions: desire, guilt and remorse, and—above all—fate. There is nothing more rewarding than reading a work by a master craftsman at the top of his game, nothing else like it at all. It helps, of course, that we are reading Pamuk’s latest novel in a savvy translation by Ekin Oklap, the translator for his last two works.

Orhan Pamuk: The Red-Haired Woman
Trans. by Ekin Oklap
Knopf, 253 pp., $26.95

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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