A youthful obsession yields a haunted life | Sunday Observer

A youthful obsession yields a haunted life

6 September, 2020
Orhan Pamuk
Orhan Pamuk

A sense of place animates many novelists, but few more than Orhan Pamuk, for whom personal geography is artistic destiny. Istanbul, his home and his muse, is the ever-present character in his novels; his city’s often-uneasy equipoise between East and West, secular and sacred, traditional and modern adding tension to whatever story is in the novel’s foreground.

“The Red-Haired Woman” once again explores this duality. Larded throughout the novel are references to two ancient and opposite tragedies of fathers and sons: Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” and the classic Persian tale of Rostam and Sohrab from Ferdowsi’s “Shahnameh,” or Book of Kings. In the former, Oedipus unwittingly murders his father; in the latter, the father, Rostam, unknowingly kills his son, Sohrab. These two classic tales become both the obsession of the novel’s protagonist, Cem Celik, and the determinants — or over-determinants — of the novel’s action.

The Sophocles tale not only comes out of the Western canon but its notion of the headstrong individualist who probes and questions and tempts fate is convenient shorthand for the would-be tradition-killers of Western modernity. In Ferdowsi, the father who kills his son can stand in for an old-against-young, backward-looking extremism, wielding an airless adherence to tradition against any would-be modernising trends.

Divided into three parts, Pamuk’s novel appears at first to be narrated by Cem, whose Marxist father is more absence than presence in the boy’s life. Even before his father was jailed as a political activist, Cem sensed that his parents didn’t love each other, that his father “was attracted to other women.”

So it’s not entirely surprising when, upon his release, he deserts his family. This abandonment leaves the teenage boy and his mother in reduced circumstances and puts Cem’s dream of becoming a writer at risk.

Needing money for cram school to assure his entry into a good college, Cem takes a summer job as a well-digger’s apprentice, leaving his middle-class city life to camp with his master on a desolate rural site outside a garrison town.

It’s supposed to be a short job — two weeks at most — but for all the skill of the digger and the backbreaking labour of his apprentice, the site refuses to yield water. The work drags on in the blazing heat amid rising tensions and fraying tempers

As the relationship between man and youth deepens, crossing class lines and age barriers, Cem begins to feel a filial tug toward his boss. But on an evening trip to the nearby town, he encounters an enigmatic and lovely red-haired woman.

On a later visit, he learns that she is one of the members of a travelling theatre troupe. His growing preoccupation with this woman adds to tensions on the work site, fuelled by Cem’s irrational jealousy of his master’s imagined involvement with her.

Pamuk has a masterly control of mood in this section of the novel, and its sometimes stilted language seems apt for his half-formed, often arrogant, intellectually and sexually curious young narrator.

Indeed, at this point, the novel is so gripping and accomplished that when the married actress chooses to commit adultery with Cem, whom she has only just met, I was able to suspend my disbelief. “The heart wants what it wants,” I shrugged, channelling Woody Allen. But many years later, when the woman discloses the relationship that underlies her interest in this callow youth, I found myself thinking of another humorist, Mark Twain, who observed that although fiction must be plausible, truth needn’t be. Alas, it’s not the only time Pamuk reaches into the grab-bag of improbable coincidences and pulls out an unlikelihood that strains reasonable bounds.

When Cem’s romantic distraction leads to an accident at the well site, he must make a moral choice of awesome consequence — one that he realises will shape the rest of his life. As he reaches his decision, the story begins to crumble.

The second and third sections of the novel become nothing more than clunky melodrama laced with ever-greater implausibility and snarled in repetitive references to the two classic stories of patricide and filicide until the foreshadowing becomes positively penumbral.

Influenced by his well-digging father figure, Cem discards his writing dreams to study engineering and geology. In adulthood, he is able to enrich himself on the back of Istanbul’s expansion and building boom. Here Pamuk flits like a barn swallow over fascinating issues of contemporary Turkish life, but never alights long enough to offer interesting insights or even substantially enrich the story.