Death of the Father, Death of the Son: On Orhan Pamuk’s ‘The Red-Haired Woman’

The new works of a Nobel Prize winner such as Orhan Pamuk (who won the award in 2006) are subject to intense scrutiny, in case they show any sign of decline on the part of the author. But Pamuk’s most recent novel, The Red-Haired Woman, exhibits profound skill on Pamuk’s part and acts as a vehicle for social analysis, theory, and critique on par with the best works of Balzac. With his latest, Pamuk has created an important means of understanding the dynamics underlying contemporary political upheavals and the struggles between secularists and Islamists in Pamuk’s native Turkey.

The Red-Haired Woman begins during the teenage years of its main character, Cem, who is preparing to take his entrance exams for university. He takes on a summer job as an apprentice to a well digger named Master Mahmut in order to fund his preparatory courses. The beginning and end of the novel take place in a barren settlement on the outskirts of Istanbul called Öngören, where Master Mahmut has been commissioned to dig a well and find water.

Cem and his mother were recently abandoned in Istanbul by his father, a pharmacist and left-wing activist. Master Mahmut and Cem’s relationship is one of master-apprentice as they painstakingly dig a well by hand for a local businessman hoping to build a factory, but Master Mahmut develops into a father figure for Cem. Cem’s experience in Öngören is rooted in fantasy, illusion, and the mythic and divine. Master Mahmut tells Cem fantastical tales that correspond to allegories in the Quran, which in turn lead the two to contemplate lofty subjects such as the existence of heaven and hell. Cem notes, “Whenever he told religious stories, Master Mahmut always grew quiet at the most meaningful moment, and I would sense a vague warning in his manner: it could happen to you.” The tension in their relationship begins when Cem tells a story that he read in an Istanbul bookshop, thinking he could strike fear into the heart of his master: the tale of Oedipus Rex. There is a menacing atmosphere to Cem’s time in Öngören, especially because Master Mahmut is unable to find water and grows increasingly suspicious of Cem’s activities.

On his evening walks through Öngören, Cem encounters the titular red-haired woman, an actress in a traveling theater group that puts on morality plays derived from the Quran and folktales. Cem grows obsessed with her and begins to follow and interact with her on an increasing basis. The absence of his father is especially evident when Cem begins to fall in love, or at the very least, fall in lust.

Cem feels that a lack of paternal supervision is allowing his true self to come through, as he does not need to worry about the stern gaze of his father—but his father’s advice also plays into the fantasies he holds of the red-haired woman. He imagines the two of them reading together, and Cem recalls his father’s words: “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.” Though he may not be explicitly aware of it, the lack of a paternal figure is affecting not just Cem’s conscious life but the idealized version that plays out in fantasy.

In an interaction with the woman, Cem mentions his absent father. She responds, “Find yourself a new father. We all have many fathers in this country. The fatherland, Allah, the army, the Mafia … No one here should ever be fatherless.” The object of Cem’s affection is pushing him to form a new paternal relationship: In Cem’s case, this is the potential bond between himself and Master Mahmut. On a broader sociological basis, it is a comment on the role paternal imagery plays in the imaginary of a populace, especially in a traditional society that emphasizes the authority of fathers. In the Turkish context, it is especially significant that the founder of the Republic, Mustafa Kemal, took on the name Atatürk (meaning “father of the Turks”) after its establishment.

While watching a play put on by the actress’s theater troupe, Cem encounters a tale derived from the Persian-language epic Shahnameh: the story of Rostam and Sohrab. Rostam is a warrior and champion of the Persian kingdom who travels into a neighboring land. While there, he beds a princess named Tahmineh and gives her a band to wrap around the arm of his child so that he may recognize it after he returns to his homeland. This child is Sohrab, who becomes the champion of Tahmineh’s land and plans to reunite with his father in order to establish the two-kingdom rule of Rostam and Sohrab. For Sohrab’s plan to work, he needs the kingdoms to go to war and for the father and son to recognize one another. Through various underhanded machinations on the part of Sohrab’s king, the two champions are set to duel each another, but both are in full combat regalia and unable to recognize one another. After hand-to-hand combat that lasts many days, Rostam kills Sohrab and finally sees the armband when it is too late. The father is left to grieve the life he has taken while the mother, Tahmineh, dies upon hearing the news of Sohrab’s death.

Analyses of familial dramas sometimes neglect one fundamental emblem of tragedy that Pamuk is adamant in emphasizing: the mother’s sorrow. As Pamuk writes, “The logic of the universe turns on the tears of the mother.” Pamuk employs the narrative in The Red-Haired Woman to emphasize the universal role of mothers in both cultural traditions and their founding myths. The violence that fathers and sons bring upon each other universally affects one figure, the mother, whether she is Jocasta, mother of Oedipus, or Tahmineh. In the story of Rostam and Sohrab, which originates in the lands east of Turkey, there is a father-son relationship that leaves the son murdered. In the Oedipus myth, which originates from Greece, west of Turkey (and part of the so-called “West”), the son kills the father. In Öngören, an accident at the excavation site forces Cem to leave the rural settlement and return to Istanbul thinking he may have caused the death of Master Mahmut. The end of Cem’s Öngören period leads to him partially acting out the Oedipal drama.

In Istanbul, Cem studies to become an engineer, learning the technologically advanced methods of water extraction that render old-fashioned well-diggers like Master Mahmut useless, bringing to bear another tension at the heart of the novel: the growing influence of the West on Turkish society. The movement of modernization in the 20th century has done away with the traditional modes of life and the fantasies represented by Master Mahmut, and it has forced the figural fathers to “die” at the hands of their modernizing sons. However, the “Eastern” tale of Rostam and Sohrab plays a major role in Cem’s adult life, which occupies the second half of the novel.

Although Cem did not know the title of the play the theater troupe put on in Öngören, a business trip to Tehran provides Cem the opportunity to formally encounter the tale in its original literary context. If Cem’s youth was spent contemplating the tale of Oedipus, his adult life became increasingly devoted to Rostam and Sohrab. He opens a construction company named Sohrab with his wife, Ayse, and as the couple lacks a child, the construction company begins to substitute. The final events of the novel allude to the death of the figural child Sohrab, and Cem is forced to return to Öngören in order to alleviate his guilt over the accident that befell Master Mahmut, the figural father he believed he killed.

The presentation of Turkish society in this novel is pressing in contemporary circumstances, but the juxtaposition of two major cultural traditions, their tensions and commonalities made plain, makes The Red-Haired Woman one of the most interesting novels published in recent years and a lovely addition to Pamuk’s oeuvre. Tradition still has a reckoning in store for those who turn away from it, and Pamuk’s novel is masterful in drawing out the inherent tension of a society in the midst of an identity crisis related to its own history and values.