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Orhan Pamuk: Kırmızı saçlı kadın (The Red-Haired Woman)

Our hero/narrator is Cem Çelik. In 1984, he is living in Beşiktaş, near Istanbul, with his parents. His father is a pharmacist, running his own small pharmacy. He also has left-wing views and has been arrested and imprisoned for this. One day, when his father is doing his weekly all-night shift, Cem takes his father his dinner as usual. The next day, his father does not return home. As this had happened twice before, he assumes his father has been arrested again but it is apparent from his mother’s reaction that something else might be going on. Life goes on without his father.

Cem needs to work to earn money. At first he works in a bookshop and does well there but then he gets a job guarding an orchard for a relative. Nearby, three men are digging a well. Cem is curious about it and, eventually, Master Mahmut, the man in charge, offers him a job, as his other two apprentices are leaving. He accepts, even though his mother is very much opposed. However, an agreement is made, another apprentice hired and the three men head off for Öngören, outside Istanbul.

The work is hard but soon Cem comes to admire Mahmut and then starts to look on him as a sort of father figure. His real father kept himself to himself but Mahmut is more forthcoming and, indeed, discusses with him why he is digging where. The place he chooses does not look too promising but Mahmut has the experience and is convinced they will find water there.

When they are not working, the three, together or separately, go into the local town of Öngören. It is there that Cem first sees the eponymous red-haired woman. He is immediately attracted to her but is too shy to approach her. For the next few days, he seeks her out and watches her when he can. He learns that she works at the local Theatre of Morality Tales, a travelling show. He is eager to see her but is discouraged from buying a ticket as he is too young but eventually does get in and is enthralled by her performance. Eventually, they do get together and he learns that she is married (he has met her husband without being aware that he was her husband) and learns more about her. He also learns that she is a lot older than her. Despite this, they have sex.

Meanwhile, the well-digging seems to be yielding no water. Indeed, all the signs point to no water being there at all. They are now at a stage when one of the men – Mahmut – has to go down the well, using a windlass. Ali (the other apprentice) and Cem haul up what he has dug out in a bucket. The owner of the site (who has to pay according to the depth of the well) is getting worried and eventually calls a halt to proceedings. Not only will he no longer pay the weekly retainer, he withdraws Ali, who works for him. Mahmut, who will get a huge bonus if water is found, is determined to continue and the two do continue.

One day, while pulling up the bucket on the windlass, Cem lets the bucket slip and it falls before he can warn Mahmut down in the well. He hears a scream and then silence. He calls down but there is no reply. He continues to call but there is no response. He dashes into the town to seek Gülcihan, the red-haired woman, but learns that she and the theatre troupe have left town. He grabs his things and hurriedly flees the town.

For the next few years, he is constantly worried that he will be arrested but nothing happens. He goes to university to study engineering geology and meets and marries Ayse, who is a disant relative and studying pharmacy at the same university as him. I knew on the day we met that I would fall in love with her, wanting so much to fall in love with someone.

He has a successful career, making a lot of money, but the couple have no children. He even re-establishes a relationship with his now remarried father. Digging for wells becomes easier in that the technology has dramatically improved but more difficult as the water table in Istanbul becomes more depleted as more and more houses and businesses are built, as Istanbul expands. Then, inevitably, he gets a contract in Öngören, with part of the work by the area where he and Mahmut dug the well.

Partially as a result of the stories performed by the Theatre of Morality Tales and partially because of his difficult relationship with his own father and because he saw Mahmut as something of a father figure, he becomes obsessed with two legends. The first is with the Oedipus legend. He is more interested in the patricide aspect of the story, rather than the incest with his mother side. He is particularly impressed by the Pasolini film. Similarly, he becomes interested in the Shahnameh legend and, in particular, the Rostam and Sohrab story. In this story, Rostam fights and kills Sõhrab, who he only finds out later is his estranged son. Indeed, Cem is so obsessed by this story that he buys manuscripts of it from all over the world.

Clearly, father-son relationships are key to this book and, indeed, this theme is not uncommon in world literature, though it is interesting that he is attracted to the two legends, one where the son kills the father, and the other where the father kills the son. Similarly, the theme of a mysterious, older woman who introduces a younger man to sex is also not uncommon.

While this book is very well written and an enjoyable read, I am not sure that it is of the same calibre as his earlier work. Having said that, I would add that Pamuk has set himself such a high standard that any book by him, and certainly including this one, is well worth reading.

Publishing history

First published in 2016 by Yapı Kredi Yayınları
First English translation 2017 by Alfred A. Knopf
Translated by Ekin Oklap