Book review: The Red-Haired Woman, by Orhan Pamuk

Author Orhan Pamuk. Picture: Getty Images
Author Orhan Pamuk. Picture: Getty Images
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Pamuk uses father-son murder as a deceptively simple metaphor for the generation gap causing unrest in Turkish society

The Red-Haired Woman is shorter, more straightforward and less tricksy than Orhan Pamuk’s best-known novels which won him the Nobel Prize for Literature. It has sometimes been said that no winner of that prize has subsequently written anything worth reading, but this is nonsense, though of course it has often gone to veterans whose best work is not surprisingly behind them. Pamuk however is only in his sixties, and this is only his tenth novel.

If one says that its subject is father-son relationships, and that it plays on the stories of Oedipus and the Persian tale of Sohrab and Rustum, best known to English-speakers in Matthew Arnold’s quasi-epic poem, it might seem that it is essentially a novel of ideas, even a conversation-piece. Yet, while Pamuk dwells on the significance of these stories and of other works of art inspired by them, his novel is essentially a straightforward, pleasing narrative.

It is written in three parts, the first two having the same narrator, Cem, a boy of 16 who wants to be a writer. His father, a bookish pharmacist and political dissident, has left home, and on a holiday job Cem finds a substitute father in a well-digger, Master Mahmut. The well-digger has chosen an unpromising site, and the work is hard, but in the evening they tell each other stories and visit cafes in the little town. Cem has promised his mother that he won’t descend into the well, but has to do so – and his fear is vividly evoked. One night he attends a travelling theatre where the star of the troupe who perform scenes of Sohrab and Rustoum and Abraham and Isaac, both having the theme of filicide, is the red-haired woman of the title. She is a woman in her thirties, with an absent husband, and Cem loses his virginity to her. This first part ends with a violent and disturbing episode, a moment of cowardice on Cem’s part; it will leave him fearful and guilty for years.

In Part II Cem, having abandoned his ambition to be a writer, has become a successful engineer. With his wife Ayse as his business partner, he has built a successful company called – yes – Sohrab. It’s a happy marriage, though childless, Ayse being incapable of conceiving. The couple are modern, secularly-minded Turks. They travel widely. Cem’s guilt is in abeyance, but his obsession with the twinned tales of Oedipus, who unknowingly killed his father, and Rustum, who unknowingly killed his son, intensifies. In galleries and museums he seeks out paintings which illustrate or explore such themes.

Obviously this obsession can’t remain intellectual or abstract, but must lead to action. The third part of the novel is narrated by the red-haired woman whom Cem encounters again when his company becomes interested in a development in the small town where as a boy he helped dig that well – a town now all but swallowed up in the expansion of Istanbul from a city of five million to one three times that size. The end will be violent, suitable if not foreseeable.

The theme of father-son relationships, of father-killing and son-killing, serves as a reflection of the changing nature of Turkey and Turkish society, of the gap between generations which have lost the ability to communicate with each other, and of the consequences of abrupt and dislocating social and economic change. The speed and disturbance of this change sever Cem, and others like him, from their roots, and this is a kind of parricide, while others reject the world Cem is helping to create, which is, to their mind, a world without God. The red-haired woman, viewing the wreckage, says that nobody had ever told these old stories to the students and angry young men who came to her theatre tent but somehow they knew them anyhow, just as people can sometimes still know, deep down, things they have forgotten.

In the past Pamuk has written congested narratives, employing a variety of voices. This short novel is on the face of it simpler. But the more you reflect on it the more you realise that this simplicity has been hard-earned. It makes for easy reading, but of the sort which invites you to track back in case you have missed something significant, and you will probably find that you have. It’s a novel which is a pleasure to read, though one reading is insufficient.

The Red-Haired Woman is published by Faber & Faber, £16.99