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‘The enigma of fathers and sons’

By Sally Bland - Feb 04,2018 - Last updated at Feb 10,2018

The Red-Haired Woman

Orhan Pamuk

Translated by Ekin Oklap

New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017

Pp. 253


In his latest novel, Orhan Pamuk weaves an intriguing tale full of pathos, impossible love and mystery, but he does not stop at telling a good story. As always in his books, there is a philosophical idea, not just attached to the plot but actually driving it to conclusion. In “The Red-Haired Woman”, this idea is the power of myth and human memory, and the extent to which they can impinge on reality. 

Cem, the protagonist who narrates most of the story, claims that a passage in Sigmund Freud’s book on dreams changed his life forever. The passage in question is about the myth of Oedipus, who unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother. Later Cem discovers the Persian epic, “Shahnameh”, where the hero, Rostam, unknowingly kills his son. Narrating his life in retrospect thirty years later, Cem invites the reader to join his quest for meaning in life, “lured by the enigma of fathers and sons”. (p. 3)

Cem’s obsession with these myths is due to the absence of his father, a leftist who is arrested, imprisoned and tortured after the 1980 military coup. He disappears several times; the last time, he never returns. His mother’s bitter comments make Cem believe that he has gone to live with another woman rather than having been arrested. As the story opens, Cem is a bright teenager and avid reader, who aspires to be a writer.

Since his father’s abandonment leaves them impoverished, Cem is apprenticed to a well-digger at a site 30 kilometers outside of Istanbul, in the hope that he will earn enough to go to cram school and then excel on his university entrance exams. 

This turns out to be more than a summer job. The well-digger to whom he is apprenticed, Master Mahmut, becomes a kind of surrogate father to Cem, showing more interest in him and more concern for his welfare than his own father ever did. He confides in Cem and tells him stories inspired by the Koran, ancient myths and fairy tales, further whetting the boy’s appetite for ancient tales. 

There is also an element of myth and magic to the craft itself: “To work out where to dig for water as they paced the ground, the old masters had to decipher the language of the soil, of the grass, insects, and birds, and detect the signs of rock or clay underfoot.

These particular skills led some of the old well-diggers to become convinced that, like the shamans of Central Asia, they, too, were in possession of supernatural powers and the gift of extrasensory perception, allowing them to commune with subterranean gods and jinn.” (p. 17) 

Cem’s apprenticeship is also pivotal because it is in the nearby small town that he meets the red-haired woman who will have a lasting impact on his life. 

However, Cem’s relationship with Master Mahmut is strained when the digging drags on without finding water. An accident occurs when Master Mahmut is down in the well which makes Cem think that he has inadvertently killed his master. Suddenly, myths become threatening and all too real. Feeling helpless, panicked and guilty, Cem flees the scene and returns to Istanbul, where he tries to pretend nothing has happened. 

Plagued by guilt, he feels himself unfit to be a writer and decides to study geological engineering instead. It takes several years before he manages to feel “normal”; he finishes university, marries a woman he loves and embarks on a successful career as a building contractor. Still, he keeps on seeking out father-son myths in various works of art and literature in different countries, ultimately seeking himself.

Pamuk’s stories often involve Turkey’s position between East and West, but this novel, like “A Strangeness in My Mind” (2015), focuses more on Turkey’s transition from old to new. In the beginning, Cem notes that when he was a boy in the 1980s, Istanbul had a population of 5 million as opposed to 15 million by the time he tells the story. Cem himself embodies the transition from the ancient to modernity.

Beginning as an aspiring writer, obsessed by myths and memory, and engaging in well-digging — a truly ancient endeavour — he eventually becomes a building contractor, and thus part of Turkey’s construction boom and transition to modernity (and urban sprawl). Yet, significantly, myths still matter to him, and he connects them to real life.

Part of the book’s charm is Cem’s (Pamuk’s) intimate and expressive voice, and his detailed recreation of a variety of milieu, urban and rural, especially his magical, semi-metaphysical descriptions of the well-digging site, high on a plateau, which affords a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside and, at night, of thousands of twinkling stars. 

Another fascination of the story is its ambiguity. Pamuk cleverly drops hints along the way but there are many things that remain unclear, building mystery and suspense. Only towards the end does one discover the connections among the characters and the answer to the question of whether myth impacts on real life. And only at the very end does one understand why it is the red-haired woman who gives the book its title.

“The Red-Haired Woman” is available at Books@Cafe.




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