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

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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.

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A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk (Man Booker International Prize Long List)

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Being the Adventures and Dreams of Mevlut Karatas, a seller of Boza, and of His Friends, and Also a Portrait of Life in Istanbul Between 1979 and 2012 from Many Different Points of View.

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I had never heard of the beverage called boza before, let alone of a street vendor who sells it calling out, “Booo-za!” Even the intonation of his voice can make all the difference between who answers his call to purchase a glass, or perhaps a kilo, and who doesn’t.

Mevlut is humble and good, hard-working and innocent. He doesn’t know his cousin Suleyman will trick him when he elopes with whom he believes is Samiha. The letters that Mevlut has written for three years, expressively declaring his love for her beautiful eyes, have been delivered to her older sister, Rayiha, instead.

Upon seeing his bride’s face in a moment of bright light after their carefully planned escape, he is as surprised as Jacob when he realizes he had been duped into marrying Leah rather than his beloved Rachel.

“He had no clear understanding of how he had been tricked, no memory of how he’d arrived at this moment, and so the strangeness in his mind became a part of the trap he had fallen into.”

Throughout the novel we come across these recurrent themes: the strangeness in the mind, the life of the working class in Istanbul, and the question of fate. In particular, is the person we marry the one who was meant for us?

I felt a deep sense of simpatico with Mevlut, who questions his thoughts by calling them a strangeness in his mind.

“There’s a strangeness in my mind,” said Mevlut. “No matter what I do, I feel completely alone in this world.”

And of course, we are ultimately alone. But this story of Mevlut and Rayiha, her beautiful sister Samiha, their relatives and friends, bring to light how interdependent we are on one another. It makes me examine my own life to see where things have worked for good without even knowing they would turn out that way.

Find other thoughts from Stu here.

A Strangeness in My Mind by Orham Pamuk
Published October 20, 2015
624 pages

Not Finished Yet, But It Just May Be My Favorite Book of 2010

To readers and museum visitors who are curious to know whether the pain I endured that day was owing to the death of my father or to Fusun’s absence, I would like to say that the pain of love is indivisible. The pains of true love reside at the heart of our existence; they catch hold of our most vulnerable point, rooting themselves deeper than the root of any other pain, and branching to every part of our bodies and our lives. For the hopelessly in love, the pain can be triggered by anything, whether as profound as the death of a father or as mundane as a piece of bad luck, like losing a key: such elemental pain can be flamed by any sort of spark. People whose lives have, like mine, been turned upside down by love can become convinced that all other problems will be resolved once the pain of love is gone, but in ignoring these problems they only allow them to fester. (p. 228)

I’ll have a review when I finish this book (when I finish teaching, when I finish entertaining, when I finish thank-you notes, when I finish shopping, baking, cleaning). Until then, I just want you to know how much I love this novel which is a close up look at love, relationships, Istanbul, and the mystery within all three.