Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman reiterates his strong hold over melancholic oeuvre
Orhan Pamuk's latest translated novel, The Red-Haired Woman, tells the story of Cem, a 16-year old student from Istanbul, apprenticed to a traditional well-digger
Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk’s novels require a sort of mental preparation. One is assured of a deep dive into Turkish culture, forgotten monuments, lifestyles, histories, among other things. But the plots are not quite straight-forward. The beauty of a lot of Pamuk’s novels lie in their intricacies. Think My Name is Red, Snow, The Museum of Innocence. But his latest translated work, The Red-Haired Woman, is far from that. It’s a relatively shorter novel, for one, and the story is almost like a fable at some level. Yes, there are philosophical detours in many portions, but it’s a linear narrative with an element of a reveal which you want to approach soon. In that sense it is almost like a racy thriller on some levels. But scratch the surface and there’s more going on.
Cem, a 16-year old student from Istanbul, has a father who is a left-leaning pharmacist. The father is not around for the most part of the story, thanks to his leftist political leanings which land him behind bars, or away from the family for long durations. Financially speaking, the family isn’t swimming in money, prompting Cem to take up a job as an apprentice to a renowned well-digger — Master Mahmut.
What follows is the start of a relationship between the apprentice and his master, which at times takes shades of friendship, and at others, gives one a sense of a father-son relationship that was missing from Cem’s life.
The first half of the novel revolves around Cem’s life as an apprentice to Master Mahmut who is a traditional well-digger. The second half though is a rush through Cem’s later years, till he becomes a successful construction magnate. That is, until fate calls him back to the very spot where he once tried searching for water under the watchful eye of his master. Anything more, and it would be revealing a bit too much of the plot. Let’s just say that there is a change of narrator sometime in the second half of the book, which shines a light on lot of things.
The well-digging activity is carried out in this imaginary town of Ongoren, which is yet to be recognised or develop as a thriving city. The time-frame is somewhere in the early '80s. After completing their work for the day, Cem or Master Mahmut or both head to this market nearby which acts as a distraction from their otherwise labour-filled days. A coffee house with a nomadic cast of characters, a travelling theatre, act as distractions for both before they have to resume work the next day. One of the leading ladies in the travelling theatre company, who shares her name with the title of the novel — The Red-Haired Woman — becomes a point of obsession for the hormonal Cem. He takes every opportunity he can to head in the direction of the market, just so that he can get a glimpse of her. He eventually loses his virginity to this woman, which also sets in motion the turning point in the novel.
As with his 1998 classic, My Name is Red, Pamuk explores a profession which may have been lost to time in many parts of the world. The profession of the miniature artists (from My Name is Red) is replaced by that of well-diggers here. And this being a Pamuk novel, you are told all the possible nitty-gritties of this old world profession. By Pamuk’s own admission, he did actually come across a traditional well-digger and his apprentice back in the late '80s, and he observed them work and had conversations with them to understand the profession. (Note to aspiring novelists: Take detailed notes of anything you find fascinating. You never know when that can be a bedrock of a future work.) Using ancient techniques to figure out which part of the land will have a steady stream of water underneath it, the anxieties associated with the duration of the well-digging, the back-breaking labour involved with the limited help at hand — it’s as though you are witnessing it in front of you in real time. Pamuk even has an illustration, on page 25, of the contraption that was used to pull the rocks out from the dug portion of the well. Some readers may find the descriptions a bit too lengthy and not really adding much to the narrative. But, for showing the deep bond between Cem and Master Mahmut, one needs to be well versed with the process of this ancient art.
The father-son relationship is the underlying motif of The Red-Haired Woman. Cem pretty soon realises that Master Mahmut is effortlessly filling in the gap left behind by the father who is not around. At times, this soothes Cem, at others, it agitates him. The filial and patriarchal bond is symbolised between these two characters. Pamuk even uses the act of well-digging as a metaphor to allude to the father-son relationship. Sample this:
“Water could spring up from the earth at the most unexpected moments, catching you by surprise. God Himself would intervene to douse the faithful well-digger’s face with water, the first spray always as powerful as the arc of a baby boy’s urine. On first seeing the water, the well-digger would smile delightedly like a father beholding his newborn son.”
During their post-work discussions, Cem narrates the story of Sophocles’ Oedipus The King, which ends with the son Oedipus killing his father, to marry his own mother Jocasta. Master Mahmut, not too impressed with the Greek tragedy, tells another tale with cultural roots in the middle-east. Later in the story, Cem discovers Rostam and Sohrab, the father-son story, from the Persian classic penned by Ferdowsi called Shahnameh. Unlike Oedipus, here Rostam (the father) ends up killing Sohrab (the son), who has no ambitions like Oedipus (fun fact: A centuries old copy of Shahnameh, with some portions written in gold-plated ink, is housed inside the JN Petit Library in Mumbai’s Fort area).
So obsessed is Cem, that he tries to find out an Oedipus and a Rostam in every conceivable incident happening around him — a particularly strict cafe manager, an intolerant father, crime stories involving father and sons. Somewhere, Cem is trying to find a catharsis in his own personal history, of which his wife Ayse has little idea. Having no children of their own, Cem and Ayse continue their passions in the fields of art and literature which is related to the two tragedies that form the basis of this book.
Look at this canvas from a macro perspective, and one can’t help but draw parallels between the book and present-day Turkish society, which is being ruled by the strict father figure in the form of current President Erdogan which alludes to the eastern Rostam/Sohrab story. On the other hand, in the past when Kemal Ataturk founded Turkey, he in essence demolished the old order and brought in modernity — thereby alluding to the tale of Oedipus Rex, where the son kills the father.
But wait, if all I’ve spoken so-far about is father-son relationships, why is the book called The Red-Haired Woman? The answer to that is revealed as the book comes to a close. An answer that gives voice to the woman, who has so far not really had a chance to speak out in the legends of Oedipus Rex or Rostam and Sohrab. And the revelations by the red-haired woman, makes us reconsider all that we have been consuming so far in Cem’s narrative voice — and gives the Oedipus Rex story gets a whole new twist towards the end.
If you have no idea about Pamuk’s former work, this is a good novel to begin with. It isn’t as dense as his other work. If you are a fan of Pamuk, however, this book may leave a lot to be desired.
Whatever the case may be, The Red-Haired Woman does shine and reiterates Pamuk’s strong hold over his melancholic oeuvre.
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