The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk (translated by Ekin Oklap)

Photo by @mongoren on Pinterest

Our narrator, Cem, sits with Master Mahmut at the Rumelian Coffeehouse in Öngören. His master is a welldigger for whom he is working to earn money for cram school, and they are ever hopeful that they will strike water. But Cem is also hopeful that he will see the Red Haired Woman again.

I longed for her to look at me once more with that tender expression of recognition. It was as if this woman’s kind, gently teasing gaze had revealed to me just how wondrous the world could be. And yet a part of me couldn’t help but feel that all these thoughts were just fantasies.

In those moments, I thought: I am most completely myself when nobody’s watching. I had only just begun to discover this truth. When there is no one to observe us, the other self we keep hidden inside can come out and do as it pleases. But when you have a father near enough to keep an eye on you, that second self remains buried within.

One day, while lost in thought about the Red-Haired girl who has entranced him, the bucket falls from Cem’s hand at the windlass. He hears a terrible wail from the many feet down underground, and then there is nothing but silence. Has he killed Master Mahmut, the only man who has been a father to him since his own father left the family in poverty many years ago?

The theme of fathers and sons runs throughout the novel, in a myriad of ways in addition to Cem’s personal life. He tells Master Mahmut of Sophocles’ The Oedipal King. While searching for the Red-Haired Woman he sees her and her theater troupe perform a play in which the father accidentally kills his own son. After he is married, he sees Ilya Repin’s oil painting Ivan The Terrible  which shows a father cradling the bleeding son he’s just killed.

It seems the father and son relationship is more than something personal or familial, that it embodies the bigger picture of a government, or even existential meaning.

It looked like the work of a Persian painter who’d been inspired by the foremost exemplars of Rostam and Sohrab scenes but who had also been exposed to Renaissance perspective and chiaroscuro techniques…This murderous father was the merciless czar Ivan IV, founder of the Russian state, subject of Eisenstein’s film Ivan The Terrible, and a favorite of Stalin’s. The brutality and remorse emanating from the painting, its stark simplicity, and its single-mindedness were uncannily reminiscent of the ruthless authority of the state.

Ultimately, however, it comes down to that critical relationship. How well do fathers know their sons, or sons, in turn, their fathers? Are they destined to fight for the same things, such as the affection of the same women? Does the competition inherent to each male stand in the way of truly accepting one another?

IMG_4509These are the things that Orhan Pamuk explores in his brilliant book. The mere 253 pages hold questions which have been asked for centuries, and he weaves his theme into an intricately woven mystery involving fathers and sons and the red-haired woman.

It is a book filled with irony and longing, and while I only know of a father-daughter relationship, it made me ponder the relationship of my son and his father. If only his father would have lived past our son’s toddler years.

5 thoughts on “The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk (translated by Ekin Oklap)”

  1. Is he able to convey Istanbul, and the country surrounding where the well was dug, so well! I love Pamuk, especially Snow, and this one is quite magnificently done. He weaves the father son thing throughout like a magician, and yet it is not contrived.


  2. Just happens that I went to see Pamuk’s talk in London just last Friday, talking about this book and his other previous books. I never actually read his book, but have been meaning to, shame! I found the things he said on stage interesting which I’m sure is a reflection of his books.


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