‘The Red-Haired Woman’ by Orhan Pamuk
William Armstrong - email@example.com
‘The Red-Haired Woman’ by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Ekin Oklap (Faber & Faber, 272 pages, £17)
In his more recent novels Orhan Pamuk has adopted a simplicity distinct from labyrinthine earlier works. The Nobel prize-winning author’s “A Strangeness in My Mind,” published in English in 2015, was an almost Dickensian tome chronicling the life of a poor Istanbul street-seller amid wrenching changes in the city over decades.
At first glance, “The Red-Haired Woman” continues this realist trajectory, examining the relationship between a traditional well-digger and his young apprentice. But the book develops into a complex symbolic parable, with an apparently simple story taking a darker twist. A slim work compared to the doorstoppers of “A Strangeness in My Mind” and the earlier “The Museum of Innocence,” Pamuk’s 10th novel is a modest 250 pages.
Its first part focuses on Master Mahmut, a 43-year-old laborer who has dedicated his life to digging more than 150 wells over the years. He is “among the last practitioners of an art that had existed for thousands of years,” still using “the ancient traditional methods of well-digging with spade and pickax, of slow excavation by the bucketful on a wooden windlass, of lining the walls meter by meter with concrete.”
A textile merchant employs Mahmut to find water in a two-acre plot in the fictional district Öngören outside Istanbul, earmarked for a new factory. The land is primitive and has no electricity supply, but he is promised handsome rewards if he manages to find water. He takes as an apprentice Cem, a teenager from a middle-class Istanbul family, and they start their back-breaking work in the heat of summer.
An unlikely paternal bond forms between the taskmaster Mahmut and the impressionable Cem. But things get complicated as digging continues without results and Cem develops an obsession with a ragtag theater troupe and its enigmatic leading lady. Tragedy then occurs when he drops a heavy bucket onto Mahmut, running away in panic with his master wounded, possibly dead, at the bottom of the well. “What had happened at the well would always bar me from the joys of an ordinary life,” reflects Cem.
Throughout the book this real life story is knitted with references to the myth of Oedipus and its opposite, the story of Rostam’s unknowing murder of his son Sohrab in the medieval Persian epic Shahnameh. The overlapping of myth and reality is sometimes heavy-handed. After many uneasy years, Cem tries to learn all he can about the two myths as a tycoon in Turkey’s booming real estate sector. He is further unsettled. “As I leafed through those old volumes, immersing myself in the stories, I felt as if I were in the theater tent in Öngören. Whenever I read about Rostam and Sohrab, I felt as if I were reliving my own memories,” he reflects.
“The Red-Haired Woman” describes Istanbul's expansion to become a gargantuan megalopolis. The plot of the old well gets swallowed up by the rapacious city and Cem eventually returns to visit the site. “The little towns and villages near Istanbul were expanding as disconcertingly fast as the city itself. With every trip I took, I could see its tentacles reaching father into the remotest recesses,” he observes. Memories of the well-digging alongside Mahmut stir immediate trauma, but the traditional methods they used, “looking for groundwater and divining where to dig guided by instinct alone,” seem like ancient history.
Political interpretations are possible, but Pamuk does not force it. “It seems we would all like a strong, decisive father telling us what to do and what not to do,” reflects Cem at one point. “Is it because it is so difficult to distinguish what we should and shouldn’t do, what is moral and right from what is sinful and wrong? Or is it because we constantly need to be reassured that we are innocent and have not sinned? Is the need for a father always there, or do we feel it only when we are confused, or anguished, when our world is falling apart?”
The novel contains some of Pamuk’s recurring pitfalls. As in many of his works, the protagonist – regardless of background or circumstances - happens to be a sensitive literary type who resembles the author himself. The plot also sometimes feels a little over-determined, with characters often resorting to over-convenient explications to tease out the novel’s motifs.
But on the whole “The Red-Haired Woman” successfully combines historical myth and contemporary parable. Ekin Oklap’s translation, her second novel after taking over as Pamuk’s English translator, is smooth and undemonstrative. The pacing is superb, masterfully building tension before unfolding in a striking denouement. Pamuk’s best work remains “My Name is Red,” but “The Red-Haired Woman” is another impressive achievement.
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