The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk

Translated by Ekin Oklap

Reviewed by Rob Spence

A new novel by Orhan Pamuk is always an event, and this one doesn’t disappoint. It’s an absorbing story, set in the recent past, but overshadowed by ancient epic tales that insinuate themselves into the lives of the protagonists, and propel them to their fates.

In the first section, Cem Çelik relates the story of his adolescent summer working near Öngören, a rundown town outside Istanbul. He is there to earn money before going to university, and is labouring for a master well-digger. His father, a left-wing activist, has disappeared after being arrested, though we discover that he has been released and has decided to leave his family. Cem quickly develops a father-son relationship with the rough-and-ready well-digger, Mahmut. During a visit to the town, he sees a red-haired woman, and immediately becomes infatuated with her, in a way that only teenage boys can. This section of the novel conveys the boy’s immaturity and his consuming passion sensitively, and also evokes the drabness of the small town into which the red-haired woman’s travelling acting troupe brings a flash of exotic colour. The reader feels that the narrative of the bookish Cem is authentic: the language is sometimes awkward, the observations naive. Mahmut tells the boy tales, often versions of old fables, planting a seed that will come to dominate his life.

The events of that summer will indeed shape Cem’s life in ways that the reader might guess at, but which lead to an unexpected (at least to me) conclusion, related by the red-haired woman herself. The central part of the novel narrates the later career of Cem, now a successful businessman in modern Istanbul, but whose childlessness is sublimated into an obsession with the ancient tales of father-son opposition and tragedy: the filicide of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex from the western tradition, and the patricidal narrative of Rostam and Sohrab, from the Persian epic Shahnameh representing the eastern. Istanbul, as it often does in Pamuk, features almost as a character, and its reconciliation of east and west is mirrored in the central protagonist. He travels widely, a secular, rich Turk, always seeking out libraries and museums where he can find examples of the ancient fables that haunt his dreams.

The reality of modern life in present-day Istanbul, all traffic jams, cheap high-rise flats and mobile phones, contrasts sharply with the sleepy semi-rural routine of Öngören, which, as the novel approaches its climax, once again envelops Celik, just as Istanbul has absorbed the town. The voice of the mature narrator is different from his adolescent self, and again seems believable, though it is difficult to judge how far this is Pamuk, and how far the work of the translator, Ekin Oklap. In the second and third sections, coincidences abound, perhaps testing the reader’s indulgence –but this is, of course, a commonplace technique of the old tales, and indeed the classic novel, about which Pamuk has written so entertainingly in The Naive and Sentimental Novelist.

The fleeting references to the army coup of 1980, and to summary arrests and repression, resonate now in the era of Erdoğan even more so than they might have when Pamuk was completing this novel in 2015. In its melding of ancient and modern themes, the novel presents a portrait of a troubled Turkey still battling to reconcile its past and its present.

On a technical note, I want to quibble a little about the way this book is presented to the British market. The translation was published in the USA by Penguin Random House, and here by Faber. So this British edition is not, presumably, just a straight copy of the US one. Why then, is it replete with American usages and spellings? Surely, since printing is done from computer files, it would have been a simple matter to turn the ‘centers’ into ‘centres’ and the ‘gottens’ into ‘gots’. I can find and replace easily, so why can’t the publisher?

Leaving aside my pedantry, I was intrigued and fascinated by this novel. It is, on the surface, more straightforward than some of Pamuk’s earlier work, but the layers of narrative are subtle, and require careful reading. It is a remarkable piece, showing Pamuk at the height of his powers.

Rob Spence’s home on the web is robspence.org.uk or find him on Twitter @spencro

Orhan Pamuk, The Red-Haired Woman (Faber & Faber, 2017) 978-0571330294, 253pp, hardback.

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