The Red-Haired Woman: Orhan Pamuk

Translated from Turkish by Ekin Oklap
Published by Faber & Faber, 2017, 272 pages.

Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel is about obsession, guilt and the destructive relations between fathers and sons.

The novel is narrated by Cem, looking back on himself as a 16-year-old boy. His father, a pharmacist and a communist, is often absent—he is either in prison for his communist beliefs or with another woman. When he disappears for a while, leaving the family without support, it is up to Cem to provide for them. He is apprenticed to a well-digger, Mahmut, who has been given a job on the outskirts of Istanbul. Mahmut takes Cem under his wing, becoming a surrogate father figure.

The land they are working on is barren, and the water seems elusive, although Mahmut is convinced that they would find it if they dig deep enough. In the evenings, they go to the nearby town of Örgören. That is where Cem first sees the red-haired woman. He is struck by her beauty and air of mystery and becomes besotted with her, as only a 16-year-old can. She seems to recognize him, which only fuels his obsession. He finds excuses to go into town in the evenings and tries to find out more about her.

Then there is an accident at the well, and Cem is left with a feeling of guilt, which he carries with him for decades afterwards. He marries Ayşe, and the marriage seems happy. The couple’s real estate company is very successful, making them financially well off. But Cem’s guilt is always with him, creating a distance between him and other people: “What had happened at the well would always bar me from the joys of an ordinary life”.

Meanwhile, Istanbul is growing and the outskirts are being absorbed into the city. One day the area near Örgören where the well used to be is up for sale. Cem has a chance of going back to resolve all the unanswered questions that have been nagging at him. What he finds changes his view of his past and of himself.  

This is a book of contrasts: between tradition—Mahmut’s age-old way of digging wells by hand, one of “the last practitioners of an art that had existed for thousands of years”—and the modern—the way Istanbul grows into a bustling, modern city. It is also about the clash between youth and age, and between what is imagined and reality.

But the central theme of the book is in its three epigraphs: two on Oedipus­—the king who mistakenly killed his father—by Nietzsche and Sophocles, and one from Ferdowzi’s Shahnamah about Rustom, the king who mistakenly killed his son Sohrab. In The Red-Haired Woman, Pamuk dissects the way relations between fathers and sons can go wrong, how they can be full of minefields that explode when you least expect it. The two myths are always present in the story, so much so that it is clear that the ending would revolve around one of them.

I have enjoyed other books by Pamuk, but they can be a little dense. The Red-Haired Woman is the one I’ve found easiest to read, and it is also one of the most haunting. It starts out as a simple tale of a young boy’s coming of age but becomes quite dark. There is so much sadness here for the way fathers and sons can destroy each other, often thoughtlessly.

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2 thoughts on “The Red-Haired Woman: Orhan Pamuk

  1. Do you feel like this book address, either straight-forwardly or implicitly, toxic masculinity? I know that in the U.S. many father/son relationships are shaped by competition and hiding emotions. As we’re learning with mass shootings, those emotions come out one way or another.

  2. suroor alikhan

    Yes, I think it does. None of the father-son relationships–whether blood or surrogate–turns out well. Competition and hiding emotions are the culprits, as are fear and lack of understand–or the ability to even try to understand the other.

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