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