Book review: The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk

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Published: October 22, 2017 2:04:25 AM

Pamuk’s new novel The Red-Haired Woman does not emerge from his earlier essays on the father, but it situates the complex relation between the two males solely within the periphery of Oedipal emotion.

The Red-Haired Woman, The Red-Haired Woman book review, Orhan Pamuk, book review, indian mythology, Paul Auster, east west bond, Shehname, medieval era, books on medieval eraOedipal emotion emerges predominantly in an examination of the father-son relationship in the most lucid of Pamuk’s novels.

In his December 2006 Nobel acceptance speech, My Father’s Suitcase, Orhan Pamuk remembered his father, making it perhaps the only occasion when a winner for literature talked solely about his father in his address. Exactly four years before, Pamuk had written a poignant memoir after his father’s death in December 2002. It ended with a sentence that might give goosebumps to any son: “Every man’s death begins with the death of his father.” Much of the ongoing debate in India is centered on the mother figure. Multiple forms of mother, from nation to cow. Indian mythology also has a dominant theme of mother goddess. In western literature, mother surfaces at the centre of the Oedipus Complex, which obviously presupposes a father. Many writers have explored the troublesome bond between father and son, both with or without the Oedipal theme. Mother and the consequent erotic tension exist in Hamlet, but not in The Brothers Karamazov. Paul Auster has an extremely moving memoir about his father, The Invention of Solitude, with the mother almost absent.

Pamuk’s new novel The Red-Haired Woman does not emerge from his earlier essays on the father, but it situates the complex relation between the two males solely within the periphery of Oedipal emotion. This accent, that sometimes goes tangent in the novel, lends drama to the text, but dilutes its intensity.

The novel opens with a wish of the narrator: “I had wanted to be a writer.” However, the young aspirant writer, Cem Celik, the son of a Leftist militant, eventually goes on to study engineering geology. In between, he spends some months of his adolescence as an apprentice under Master Mahmut, the great welldigger who digs over 150 wells across 20 years. It’s Turkey of 1980s, mechanised borewells have not yet arrived and the manual search for water several metres down the earth is still a profession.

Pamuk makes this seemingly tepid job of digging the earth a metaphorical dive into the human self. “If you cared about something, something valuable, but then left it inside a well and forgot about it, what did that mean?” the narrator asks. Celik’s father disappeared when he was a child and now Mahmut becomes a father figure for him. Enter the Red-Haired Woman, Gulcihan, an actress with a theatre troupe camping in the neighbourhood. As the novel progresses, the defining incident yet to arrive, the writer drops sufficient hints about an impending patricide with Gulcihan at the centre.

With Celik believing that he is now a killer (I am not revealing the victim), and his rendezvous with Gulcihan ending abruptly, his dream of becoming a novelist also gets abandoned. He goes on to become a top builder, marries a woman called Ayse, but the couple remains childless.

Here, Pamuk returns with one of his favourite themes—the bond between the east and the West. If the West has Oedipus, Pamuk observes that the east has Rostam and Sohrab. Both the sons, Oedipus and Sohrab, get estranged from their respective fathers and are exiled from their fatherland. But in Shahnameh, it’s the father Rostam who kills the son. This reference also appears in Pamuk’s another novel, Snow, as Blue narrates the story of the two warriors to Ka. “Is this story so beautiful that a man could kill for it?” asks Blue.

Curiously, in Snow, father and son of the Persian classic are spelt as Rustem and Suhrab, and the book as Shehname. Though the translators of both novels are different, it’s too important an error to have been glossed over by the novelist. Celik and Ayse now begin a “speculative exercise” about the son they never had. They would “categorize people as Rostam types or Oedipal types”. In among the most moving paragraphs of the novel, Celik notes: “Sometimes we debated what we needed to do to ensure that a hypothetical son of ours didn’t develop an Oedipus or a Sohrab complex… By recasting the sorrow of our childlessness into something more profound, we thus strengthened our conjugal bond”.

The couple then visits museums across Europe and gets intrigued that the Islamic world, which once forbade portraiture, had “thousands of depictions” of Sohrab’s killing, but Europe, despite having a rich artistic tradition, had no paintings of the moment when Oedipus killed his father or slept with his mother.

What does this significant observation reveal about Muslim painters of the medieval era? Is it that artistic freedom is valued more and hence finds a compulsory expression in moments of repression? In recent decades, the extraordinary surge of Iranian cinema has coincided with the increasing fundamentalism and censorship in the country.

Yet, this most lucid of Pamuk’s novels squanders itself. It gets undone by the overdose of the Oedipal theme. The incendiary bond between father and son gets overwhelmed by the mother figure, as Gulcihan returns in the later part of the novel and dominates the narrative that had the potential to move in various other directions.

A string of coincidences, all revolving around Gulcihan, brings a sudden drama to the narrative, but seems incongruous with the complexities involved. It oversimplifies the problematics the novel had delineated, and limits its magnitude. Sadly, Gulcihan makes her second entry just at the point the novel hits another plane. The idea of a childless couple, involving a husband living under an overpowering guilt, seeking their redemption in tales that see either father or son getting killed by the other, is a powerful one. The reader now awaits the multiple ways in which this couple would confront these tales. But as the novel steps onto a landmine of emotions, the novelist abandons this thread altogether and returns to the mother.

It’s not among the best works of Pamuk, might not demand a second reading, but holds you nevertheless at several instances. “According to my father, the greatest happiness in life was to marry the girl you’d spent your youth reading books with in the passionate pursuit of a shared ideal. I’d heard him tell my mother as much while describing someone else’s happiness.”

“It seems we would all like a strong, decisive father telling us what to do and what not to do… 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?” This novel, despite its limitations, can be read for these two paragraphs alone.

Author is a fiction writer, journalist and currently a fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.

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