Name: The Red-Haired Woman
Author: Orhan Pamuk
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
The death of a father or son at the hand of the other — metaphorically or literally — has had a primal presence in the collective unconscious of many cultures, manifesting in stories such as Oedipus Rex, the Persian epic Shahnameh, and Indian folklore. In his 10th novel, The Red-Haired Woman, Orhan Pamuk moves between these tales with melancholic ease, all the while subjecting the nature of father-son bonds to laser-like scrutiny.
The curtains rise in Turkey (1984) with 16-year-old Cem Çelik, the son of a leftist pharmacist who often left home for long periods of time, until the day he simply didn’t return. While initially driven to become a writer, Cem chooses to apprentice himself to master well-digger Mahmut for a couple of weeks, searching for water near the fictional town of Öngören — a short distance away from Istanbul. The town becomes the stage for two of Cem’s most defining moments — bonding with father figure Mahmut and meeting the red-haired woman, Gülcihan.
Even as the shovels of the well-diggers bite into the earth, the stage is set for a very different kind of digging. The Pamukian well is one of darkness and secrets, stripping away layers of identity slowly to reach for the place myths come from, and where prophecies dig their roots deep. Cem drinks deep from his time with Mahmut, loving and hating him with a zest he could never muster towards his real father. When asked by Mahmut, a skilled storyteller, to narrate one of his own, Cem prophetically chooses to narrate the story of Oedipus, saying he found it in a “book about dreams”. This is a significant moment for it marks the beginning of the propagation of the myth, and, in a certain sense, a prophecy, among the book’s pivotal characters.
It is during one of their ventures into town that Cem meets Gülcihan, and, in the span of a “knowing gaze”, loses himself to the madness of his passion. Thus time passes, with Cem spending his days digging with Mahmut and his evenings and nights at the town, searching for the red-haired woman like a man possessed. This is, in many ways, the coming-of-age period for the protagonist, nourished by shyness and bouts of reckless courage, and an almost single-minded focus on the source of his passion.
The trademarks of Pamuk are heavily evident in this book, too. Perched at the very edge of traditionality and modernity, the story is as much political parable as it is living myth. By holding up Oedipus and Rostam in a side-by-side comparison of Western and Eastern mythologies, Pamuk highlights the seeming “inevitability” of the ends the characters meet, and questions any role that fate or destiny might play in such events.
The narrative, rich in the presentation of symbols, is otherwise austere and melancholic, as seen in Istanbul or Museum of Innocence. While the book is, perhaps, among the more accessible of Pamuk’s works, the trade-off is that the presentation of thematic points sometimes becomes overbearing and comes off as insistent grating.
The balance, already precarious to begin with, spins out of control even as the well reaches deeper and deeper into the earth, culminating in Cem committing what becomes — in his eyes — a crime that would shape him for the rest of his life, and fleeing the town. In a symbolic gesture, Cem gives up his dreams of being a writer upon his return to Istanbul, posing one of the central questions of the book — does man create myths or do myths make the man? Depending on where one throws one’s hat, it could be said that Cem’s time in Öngören represents a transition from crafting a story to living one. Cem becomes a geological engineer in due course and marries Ayse, a distant relative he dated while in college.
The pace of the narrative is noteworthy here, as it transitions effortlessly from a painstaking examination of Cem’s encounters to a swifter pace, synchronising his life to the beating pulse of Istanbul as it ushers in the ’90s and the 2000s. Pamuk flits from politics to agriculture, art and business seamlessly for the most part, though he does hit hard soil at certain points in the second half of the novel.
As the tale draws to a close, the narrative folds in on itself in an expected Pamukian twist, reminiscent of My Name is Red, with the red-haired woman taking centrestage as the narrator. In what stands out as an iridescent splash of colour, the narration is as much by Gülcihan as it is by Tahmina from Shahnameh, or Jocasta from Oedipus Rex. For, as the red-haired woman says towards the very end, “The logic of the universe turns on the tears of women.”
It is left to the reader, then, to mark a spot in a field full of questions left unanswered by Pamuk, and start digging, hoping to hit water.