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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Orhan Pa­muk’s af­fec­tion­ate fam­ily por­trait My Fa­ther, an es­say in his fine 1999 col­lec­tion Other Colours, ends on a strong apho­ris­tic note: “Every man’s death begins with the death of his fa­ther.” In the No­bel prize-win­ning Turk­ish au­thor’s lat­est novel, The Red-Haired Woman, a young man’s adult life begins with the dis­ap­pear­ance of his fa­ther. Death rears its head but not be­fore Pa­muk has en­tranced and en­ter­tained with a touch­ing tale about young love and a shrewd ex­am­i­na­tion of fa­ther-son re­la­tion­ships.

Cem Ce­lik, the nar­ra­tor, is 16 in the sum­mer of 1986. His fa­ther, a phar­ma­cist and left-wing ac­tivist, has van­ished, and not for the first time. Now poor, Cem and his mother are forced to move from Is­tan­bul to an out­ly­ing town.

Cem finds a job in the school hol­i­days guard­ing his un­cle’s or­chard, but it is the well-dig­ging work be­ing car­ried out in the neigh­bour­ing gar­den that in­ter­ests him more. Mas­ter Mah­mut notes Cem’s cu­rios­ity and takes him on as his ap­pren­tice to help find water for a tex­tile mer­chant’s fac­tory.

Driven on by their em­ployer’s prom­ise of fi­nan­cial re­wards, and us­ing ba­sic, al­most prim­i­tive equip­ment — pick­axe, bucket, wind­lass — the pair slog away in tor­rid heat, ex­ca­vat­ing earth and hack­ing through rock. At the end of a long day, they down tools and head to a nearby gar­ri­son town to un­wind and stock up on sup­plies and pro­vi­sions.

One evening there Cem catches the eye of a tall, al­lur­ing woman with red hair, “mys­te­ri­ous, melan­choly eyes and per­fect lips”. He be­comes in­fat­u­ated: dur­ing the day, he digs and day­dreams; in the evenings, he wan­ders the streets in search of her.

His per­se­ver­ance pays off. He learns the woman is mar­ried, has “lived al­most ex­actly twice as much as I had”, and is a per­former in a trav­el­ling the­atre troupe. He watches her, talks with her, and in time is se­duced by her. But af­ter his dreams come true his il­lu­sions are shat­tered. The woman packs up and the the­atre com­pany moves on. Mah­mut, on the other hand, ends up in­jured at the foot of the well and goes nowhere.

In the open­ing chap­ter of Pa­muk’s 1998 novel My Name is Red, the nar­ra­tor re­veals that he was mur­dered by be­ing thrown down a well. In The Red-Haired Woman the nar­ra­tor is kept guess­ing as to whether the well was Mah­mut’s grave and, if so, whether that makes him, Cem, a mur­derer.

The first section of the novel is a clear-cut com­ing-of-age tale. Pa­muk’s next section cov­ers Cem’s adult years, tak­ing in his stud­ies and mar­riage, his suc­cess­ful ca­reer in con­struc­tion, but his fruit­less ef­forts to be­come a fa­ther. If that first part is tinged with tragedy, then the second act is suf­fused with guilt, with Cem ag­o­nis­ing over why he aban­doned his mas­ter.

The epony­mous red-haired woman as­sumes the man­tle of nar­ra­tor for the third and fi­nal section of the book. To say more would be to spoil a sur­prise and ruin a deftly plot­ted de­noue­ment. Suf­fice it to say, Pa­muk com­pels us to read to the end by hav­ing a blast from the past drop more than one bomb­shell in the present, and by stag­ing a fam­ily re­union that doesn’t so much re­con­nect rel­a­tives as wrench them fur­ther apart.

Pa­muk’s nov­els scru­ti­nise East-West cul­tural con­flict and come lay­ered and larded with lit­er­ary ref­er­ences, artis­tic al­lu­sions or sto­ries within sto­ries. The tem­plate re­mains in place for this, his 10th novel (skil­fully trans­lated by Ekin Ok­lap). How­ever, on this oc­ca­sion Pa­muk con­denses his tropes by re­volv­ing nar­ra­tive events around two texts that stand as cor­ner­stones of sep­a­rate civil­i­sa­tions: Sopho­cles’s Oedi­pus the King rep­re­sent­ing the West, and the Per­sian poet Fer­dowsi’s epic Shah­nameh em­body­ing the East.

In the former, a son kills his fa­ther; in an episode of the lat­ter, a fa­ther kills his son. Cem be­comes fas­ci­nated by these sto­ries, and many other myths, fa­bles and per­sonal anec­dotes re­counted by Mah­mut, along with the moral­ity tales, satir­i­cal sketches and mono­logues de­liv­ered by the red-haired woman. Although the time he spends with both his sur­ro­gate fa­ther and his older lover amounts to short chap­ters of

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