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The Red-Haired Woman: A novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, August 22, 2017
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“Pamuk masterfully contrasts East with West, tradition with modernity, the power of fables with the inevitability of realism…As usual, Pamuk handles weighty material deftly, and the result is both puzzling and beautiful.”
—Booklist (starred review)
About the Author
ORHAN PAMUK won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. His novel My Name Is Red won the 2003 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His work has been translated into more than sixty languages.
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That Oedipus is going to hover like a storm-cloud over the novel is apparent from the three epigrams that precede it. Cem knew who both his father and mother were, though his father had abandoned him and his mother for several years and then forever. Cem found a surrogate father, one who told him edifying tales from the Qu’ran in the well-digger Master Mahut. It seems that Master Mahut takes the role of Laius, inadvertently killed by his son.
Cem is haunted by having left his master at the bottom of a well they were digging. He marries and with his barren wife builds a successful construction company during the long building boom that turned Istanbul and its cannibalized environs into concrete. He interests his wife both in the Oedipus/Laius story and in what he sees as a variant (same structure, reversed items) the story of in the Persian epic, Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (ca. 1000 CE), in which Rostam slays a young warrior he does not know is his son, Sohrab. The modern Turkish couple seeks out representations of the filicide (noting that Oedipus’s slaying of Laius has not been the subject of painting; such ones as there are show Oedipus and the sphinx). There is also some notice of the interrupted filicide of Isaac by Abraham (in which there is not any lack of knowledge of the geneaological relationship between the father and the son).
Parricide or filicide? Which will it be? And where’s Jocasta? The foreshadowing makes the reader expect a filicide or a parricide—some fatal father-son climax—though uncertain about which it will be (and who will fill the roles of father and son). I think Pamuk’s tale is very contrived, though what its Jocasta has to say about performing the role on stage is interesting. The contrivance and the abrupt shift of perspective 90% of the way through disappointed me, though the book is the most readable of any of the Pamuk novels I’ve read or tried to read. And as most of Pamuk’s writing does, the narrative provides insights into the rapid social changes in Turkey.
Mr. Pamuk makes much of folklore and legends: the stories of Oedipus and Abraham and Isaac as well as the Persian myth of Rostam and Sohrab. (This legend affects Cem so much that he later names his construction company Sohrab.) And one of the characters says that “’Life follows myth.’” The author makes beautifully touching comments about fathers and sons and their always complex relationships. In one memorable scene, Cem remembers how his parents were teaching him as a boy of seven to swim and the games his father would play with him. His mother would lower him into the water on his belly and he would reach out to grab his father’s hands, only to have his father back away so that Cem would have to swim a bit farther. He would yell, “’Daddy, don’t go!’” His father would smile and raise “his sturdy arms to lift me out of the water like a kitten, nestling my head against his chest or in the crook of his neck. . .” and would say: “’There’s nothing to be afraid of, Son. I’m here, all right?’” One character defines a father as a ‘” doting, charismatic figure who will until his dying day accept and watch over the child he sires. He is the origin and center of the universe.”
The novel is also about a young man’s sexual awakening, class and politics in modern Turkey and the importance of literature. And at last the author clears up the mystery of the red-haired woman about whom the younger Cem is so obsessed as a sixteen-year-old boy and puts all the pieces of the puzzle together in this intriguing novel of many twists and turns.
Mr. Pamuk’s language is both beautiful and of course insightful. Star imagery abounds. There are “tens of thousands of stars in the spangled sky” and “endless multitudes of stars.” Stars fall from the sky. And in one of the saddest passages in this wonderful book, Cem describes his father who has grown old: “But now that man [whom he had idolized as a child] had grown feeble; he’d slowed down, hunched over, and worst of all accepted the defeat handed him by life.”
THE RED-HAIRED WOMAN is that kind of novel that you want to press into the hands of a friend when you have finished it.
This tale “dictated by myth and history;” the son seeks his father, the father seeks the son, is fleshed out by Pamuk in his ease of reading style, and mildly suggestive of the political turmoil in modern Turkey. In the last chapter, Pamuk changes narrators, to maximum effect, giving voice to the enticing and voluptuous red haired woman, suggesting the Greek myth of Oedipus.
This is a short book; riveting and beautifully written.