Book review

Orhan Pamuk’s new novel will tell you how you cannot escape your past histories

‘The Red-Haired Woman’ is one the Nobel Laureate’s most accessible works.

“I want to be a writer,” the young Orhan Pamuk tells his mother at the end of the 2005 coming-of-age memoir Istanbul. It is possible to view this statement of intent as a soaring moment of modern literature – one that deserves to be filmed on 70mm, accompanied by a Hans Zimmer score, the scene building to a freeze-frame on the face of the resolute young man who will go on to become a globally celebrated Nobel Laureate.

Such triumphalism would be reductive, though, given that Istanbul is a book about boredom, inertia, and huzun, the Turkish word for melancholy, which Pamuk presents as a key characteristic of his city, infecting all its residents; and also, that a running theme of his work is the frustration inherent in being a serious writer – the obsessive need to transform experiences into words, set against the impossibility of doing this to full satisfaction.

One way in which he has dealt with this theme is to scrape away at the nature of storytelling, often using sly, self-referential devices to make the reader wonder how much a story can be trusted. You see this, to varying degrees, in the multi-narrator technique of the early novel The Silent House, the much more complex shifting perspectives of the star-making My Name is Red (where even a corpse, a tree and a much-used coin are given voice), the dense meta-narrative of The New Life, and the use of a theatre setting in the wonderfully absurdist Snow.

Which came first?

If the young man in Istanbul is the “real” Pamuk, there are other versions, with other destinies, to be found in his fiction. Compare the closing sentence mentioned above with the opening sentence of his new novel, translated (by Ekin Oklap) into English as The Red-Haired Woman. “I had wanted to be a writer,” the narrator-protagonist Cem tells us. “But after the events I am about to describe, I studied engineering geology and became a building contractor.”

This coming from someone who once worked in a bookstore, wanted to do little more than read and write, and even imagined that he and the woman he married would read a book together before making love. But if Cem doesn’t ever become a storyteller himself (at least in the sense that he hoped to be), he never stops being an absorber of stories, or understanding his life through the things he has read. Over the course of this narrative, he will have special reason to become obsessed with tragic father-son relationships in literature: with Sophocles’s play Oedipus the King, in which the hero inadvertently commits patricide; and its complement, the story from the Shahnameh in which Rostom unknowingly slays his son Sohrab.

Cem himself will have troubled relationships with two “fathers”, and much later a confrontation with a “son”. The question arises: is art reflecting life, or is life walking obediently in art’s footprints?

The obsession

The Red-Haired Woman opens in the mid-1980s with the teenage Cem – whose father has been arrested because of his Leftist politics – taking up a job as an orchard watchman (he hopes this will be a temporary detour before completing his education) and then becoming apprentice to a veteran well-digger. On a deserted plateau around 30 kilometres from Istanbul, he and Master Mahmut sleep in a tent, under the stars, at night – with the city’s lights “reflecting off the clouds like a yellow fog” in the distance – but for much of the day their gaze is downward, as they move ever deeper into the ground. The literary-minded Cem thinks of Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth, but we see that Master Mahmut is, in his own way, a creative person – obsessive about his work, refusing to compromise as he assails the layers of rock that stand between him and the water he believes is waiting to gush to the surface.

Meanwhile, during their occasional visits to the nearby town of Ongoren, Cem sees and slowly becomes obsessed with a red-haired woman; is this purely a sexual attraction, the reader might wonder, or as a member of a theatre group, does she also represent the artistic aspirations he has temporarily put aside? As he and Master Mahmut dig on and the prospect of finding water seems ever more remote, Cem’s newfound distraction becomes all-consuming and leads to a tragedy whose implications even he doesn’t fully understand.

This first section of the book – which takes up close to half the narrative – is gently reflective, focused and mainly deals with the events of a few weeks: Cem learning about the nuances of well-digging, the forays into the town, his long-awaited meeting with the Red-Haired Woman, his conversations with Master Mahmut, the stories they exchange – from Mahmut’s religious parables to Cem’s summary of the Oedipus tale.

The second section, after Cem leaves the well and the town, is looser, more diffused. The next decade or two of his life flies by in a few pages. He courts a girl named Ayse, they marry, are unable to have children but find ways to fill this gap, including traveling and making plans for the expansion of their own construction company. Privately, he remains tormented about the possibility that he had betrayed Master Mahmut. And then, a summons from the past draws him back to that defining phase of his life, and back to Ongoren.

The quickening of the narrative in these sections also seems to reflect the pace of development around Istanbul: we learn that the areas surrounding the city of the 1980s have expanded and urbanised so much that Ongoren has become essentially an extension of the capital. (Old-time Delhiites who remember what it was like to travel on the scrubby road towards Gurgaon 30 years ago might be able to relate to Cem’s feeling of disorientation when, looking down from an airplane, he is unable to identify the once-barren landscape where he and his master dug their well in 1986.) And yet, throughout all this, Pamuk never lets us forget Master Mahmut, the role people like him play in facilitating such development, and the patience that is integral to their work: there is a brilliant, recurring dream-image of the well-digger toiling away all by himself, as if on an alternate plane of reality, determined to reach the earth’s core if he must.

Sons and their fathers

This may be the “easiest” Pamuk book I have read so far, but even his most accessible, plot-driven novels (Snow and The Silent House are among the others that come to mind) tend to have surreal passages or philosophical musings that steer close to pedantry – and I don’t mean that as criticism; it feels almost necessary in stories about self-reflective characters whose lives have been influenced by literature and who are often forced to confront the relevance (or irrelevance) of what they are reading, in a confused and torn world. For instance, one question briefly raised here is: what do the differences between the Oedipus story and the Rostom-Sohrab story tell us about the differences in Western and Eastern culture and attitudes? But there is also this counterpoint: in a situation where we are concerned with the life and emotions of a specific individual, does that larger picture matter all that much?

Since there is so much going on in this relatively slim book, the narrative can feel a bit uneven or unbalanced, especially in the second half. Near the end there is a revelation that can be seen as either an implausible coincidence (if you take the plot purely at face value) or as Pamuk trying too hard to make a symbolic point about fathers and sons treading similar paths. But as always, he is more concerned with raising questions than with answering them. And without revealing any specifics, many of the reader’s assumptions about this story and its storyteller are overturned by a final, short section, where we get a different narrator and the ground shifts a little beneath our feet.

The Red-Haired Woman is about many things, but I saw it principally as being about the many ways in which we are shaped by what has gone before us: from the lives of our parents (whose shadows we might not be able to escape even if – or especially if – we are rebelling against them) to the stories we read and love. And how these influences can, over time, become a self-fulfilling prophecy. A bit like the story Master Mahmut tells about a prince who, in making a carefully worked out effort to escape an encounter with Azrael the angel of death, ends up in the pre-ordained meeting place.

The Red-Haired Woman, Orhan Pamuk, translated from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap, Penguin Books.

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