The Orhan Pamuk formula
Why do we read Orhan Pamuk? The closest thing to a general answer, gleaned through translations of his works over the last 15 years, must be “melancholy Turkish ambiguity”. Pamuk’s article of faith—as his dreamy, bookish protagonists often take pains to remind us—is that the world is without a centre; but that in life, and especially in literature, the only way we seem to be able to experience meaning is to search for one.
In Pamuk’s novels, that search is often literal. No other writer has made quite as much of Turkey’s betwixt-and-between standing in the world, from where Asia is always too far behind, and Europe too far ahead, to bequeath Turks any special sense of owning the historical moment. It may be just one reason why many of Pamuk’s compatriots, who watch lush soap operas about Suleiman the Magnificent and vote in droves for the authoritarian nationalist Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have little time for his work.
Of course, in a millennium characterized by the acts of Asian societies convinced that they are central to the world, we might be tempted to look to Pamuk for antidotes to brash certainties and ugly, one-dimensional articulations of who we are, or want to be. Loss, absence, marginality—these are the materials of the artificial intelligence of the novel, as he has been at pains to teach us. In leading us to search for meaning in these shadow qualities, the novel shapes not only its own character, but also that of its reader.
All his novels walk this talk, and no one who reads his latest production, the tightly wound, seemingly straightforward The Red-Haired Woman, will fault his consistency. Cem Çelik, a middle-aged man from Istanbul who wanted to be a writer but ended up becoming a minor real estate tycoon—would this fate befell more of our bank balances!—is trapped, as is usual for Pamuk’s protagonists, by his past as well as his future, and sets out to tell us why.
The teenaged son of an urbane but largely absent leftist activist, Cem finds himself apprenticed, one summer, to a salt-of-the-earth well-digger, looking for water on the sleepy outskirts of Istanbul. Cem’s sense of having found a father in Mahmut the well-digger shapes the rest of his life.
So does the beauteous “red-haired woman”, whose real name he will not divulge (in this novel, women get to have either names or faces, but not both). She consumes Cem even as he tells Mahmut the distressing story of Oedipus, the slave of fate who kills his father and marries his mother. Years after he loses them both, the adult Cem becomes obsessed with the Persian story of Rustom—which we’re told is virtually unknown in Turkey—the father who neither recognized by, nor recognizing, his son Sohrab on the battlefield, kills the boy.
Neither the rebellious Western son nor the authoritarian Eastern father can escape fate. The childless Cem and his clever, capable wife Ayşe derive some of their most profound experiences from the art and literature inspired by these two myths. Inevitably, life begins to take the paths set down by these old stories, and it will not be hard for the reader to guess what lies in store for our haunted hero.
Fathers and sons, East and West, the metropole and the province; each pushes and pulls the other back and forth in time, and Pamuk compresses these favourite conflicts into a narrative that makes up in brevity what it appears to lack in tension. Readers who know nothing of his work will find The Red-Haired Woman a quick introduction to the Pamuk oeuvre; his fans may well revel in the chance to revisit his preoccupations; literary critics and academics will find it one of those novels that practically teaches itself.
That programmatic quality is perhaps its major failing, however, and it may mean that The Red-Haired Woman will displease readers who have already become wary of Pamuk. Those impatient with his professorial stateliness will find the book droning in parts; those who dislike the solipsism of his narrators will find Cem a bore; those eager to move past Pamuk’s world view and see Istanbul and Turkey as something other than a weak allegory might as well avoid it altogether.
There’s something oddly deflated about The Red-Haired Woman, cobbled together by a narrator striving hard to be a man of letters, and an author who is, perhaps, a little too conscious of his status as one. There are times when the novel succeeds in captivating us with the sly, graceful charm that characterizes Pamuk at his very best. A hoary leftist father imperiously claims that the myths are all explained in Wittfogel’s Oriental Despotism, a standard work of Marxist Orientology that he has plainly never read.
Standing in a tent theatre watching a potboiler unfold, the teenaged Cem realizes that the great draw of stories like Rustom and Oedipus is remorse, and though Pamuk never says it, we, too, understand that this is the constant sorrow of being both a parent and a child: of being from a different time and a different place from those who shape us.
Yet if any of the father figures in this book wish to create true sorrow and uncertainty in us, their author is not willing to allow them breathing room. The killing blow is not the tragedy in the case of either Oedipus or Rustom. It’s that the scales never fall from their eyes—or ours—until it is too late. Neither the Greeks nor the Persians knew of a way to surmount that problem. Pamuk, with his stubborn belief in the super-humanity of the novel, may have hoped to convince us otherwise. Perhaps he will in another book.