The Red-Haired Woman
by Orhan Pamuk (Kirmizi Saçh Kadin, 2016)
translated from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap (2017)
Knopf (2017)
253 pp

As a fatherless son, so a sonless father will be embraced by none.
from Ferdowski’s Shahnameh (and the epigraph to this novel)

I had wanted to be a writer. But after the events I am about to describe, I studied engineer in geology and became a building contractor. Even So, readers shouldn’t conclude from my telling the story now that it is over, that I’ve put it all behind me. The more I remember, the deeper I fall into it. Perhaps you, too, will follow, lured by the enigma of father and sons.

The Red-Haired Woman is the latest novel from Orhan Pamuk, one of those authors of whose books I am a completist, and this, while not perhaps hitting the Nobel-Prize worthy heights of his greatest work Snow, is another excellent addition to his works and my shelves.

At 250 pages it is much more compact than his last novel, the Dickensian A Strangeness in My Mind (see Lee’s review here), but equally enjoyable and worthwhile, the relatively sparse story balanced by an interesting take on father/son relationships rooted in classical epics, but with also links back to Pamuk’s earlier works.

And as with A Strangeness in My Mind, the translation is by Ekin Oklap, who has supplanted Maureen Freely (translator of Museum of Innocence and Snow). Again, the prose does appear more prosaic than Pamuk’s earlier works, but whether this is a feature of the original, or indeed truer to Pamuk’s prose generally, is difficult for me to say. Pamuk himself, it must be said, commented that he is a big fan of the translation, which is the ultimate endorsement.

The narrator for most of the novel, Cem, begins the story living in Istanbul with his mother; his father, a middle-class pharmacist but also a leftist activist, has, after several periods of prolonged absence both while politically active and while detained by the authorities, finally permanently left the family home and re-married. The narrator is cramming for his university exams, hoping to study literature, and takes on a summer-job in Öngören, a small town 30 miles from Istanbul as an apprentice to a well-digger.

Master Mahmut is one of “the last practitioners of an art that had existed for thousands of years,” although rather dismissive of some of the more elaborate rituals with divining rods and whispered prayers of some of his peers. Cem comments:

These particular skills led some of the old well-diggers to become convinced that, like the shamans of Central Asia, they, too, were in possession of supernatural powers and the gift of extrasensory perception, allowing them to commune with subterranean gods and jinn. I remember as a child hearing my father laugh at such tales, but those longing for cheap ways to find water wanted to believe them … when well-diggers crouched amongst the creepers and pecking hens in those back gardens, listening to the soil, old men and middle-aged ladies would treat them with the reverence usually reserved for the doctor putting his ear to the sick baby’s chest.

Digging wells is, as Cem soons discovers, back-breaking and dangerous work. Pamuk describes this in almost painful detail, and at first it appears the novel is largely telling the story of a dying craft in the same way as the boza seller in A Strangeness in My Mind. Pamuk himself had been wanting to tell the story of a well-digger looking for water in apparently barren-land ever since he met one while writing his The Black Book over 25 years earlier.

But as Master Mahmut and Cem rest in their tent each night from their exertions, the old man tells the apprentice stories, including that of Joseph, favorite son of his father, and abandoned down a well by his brothers. The well-digger draws the moral from the story: “A father must be fair. A father who isn’t fair will blind his son.”

The next night, particularly tired after striking rock in his digging, Master Mahmut asks Cem to contribute a story of his own. Cem, presumably prompted by the talk of fathers, sons and blindness, tells the well-digger the story of Oedipus, which leads Mahmut to conclude that no one can escape their fate.

In the town, the 16-year-old Cem captures sight of the eponymous red-haired woman, in her thirties and mysterious and alluring. She turns out to be part of a small troupe of performing artists, The Theatre of Morality Tales, and when Cem watches her performance, it concludes with a powerful scene that he later, after researching the story, finds is that of Rostam and Sohrab from the Persian epic poem Shahnameh. In a reversal of the Greek story, here the father Rostam ends up, unknowingly, fighting and killing his son Sohrab.

After the rather drawn out (pun intended) process of digging the well, Cem’s time in the town comes to an abrupt end, and the narrative rather accelerates, when he first sleeps with the red-haired woman and then an accident occurs at the well.

He returns to Istanbul where he contemplates both what happens, but also the two tales of Oedipus and of Rostam and Sohrab. In the Oedipal tale he seems particularly fascinating with how he could end up sleeping with his mother (“a woman at least sixteen years older than he was. I tried both couldn’t imagine what that was like”), an odd failure of imagination given that was the exact age-gap to his red-haired lover. And the story of Rostam and Sohrab is one he needs to rediscover. As the islamist Blue explains to the secular modernist Ka in Pamuk’s wonderful Snow.

Once upon a time, millions of people knew it by heart — from Tabriz to Istanbul, from Bosnia to Trabzon — and when they recalled this story, they found the meaning in their lives. The story spoke to them in just the same way that Oedipus’ murder of his father or Macbeth’s obsession with power and death speak to people throughout the Western world. But now, because we’ve fallen under the spell of the West, we’ve forgotten our own stories.

Pamuk also himself has remarked that the Oedipus and Rostam stories illustrate different aspects of Western and Eastern culture: to the extent our sympathies lie with the murderer in each case, for Oedipus we are supporting individualism and for Rostam authoritarianism and the continuation of the state.

Cem’s research takes him around the world to discover manuscripts and miniatures based on the story (one of which features in My Name is Red). Cem marries, and — as the opening quote suggests — inspired by his well-digging experience he enters into the construction business, rather than pursue his literary dreams. He and his wife prove unable to have their own children, and instead their construction company, which they name Sohrab, and which grows spectacularly in the rapidly expanding Istanbul, making Cem a rich and well-known businessman, as well as allowing the novel to touch on themes of Westernization and individualism in the traditional Turkish society:

Sohrab was our son. He was growing up much faster than most children, outperforming his peers, and winning accolades for his business acumen.


Although he never forgets the red-haired woman, even recognising her in the actress Silvana Mangano, who plays Queen Jocasta, Oedipus’s mother and wife, in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1967 film Edipo Re.

During his and his wife’s cultural research, they also discovers Wittfogel’s Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power, which links Asian “hydraulic societies,” needing conscripted labor to provide water and irrigation, to despotism (a sort of “at least he made the water run” equivalent to Mussolini’s trains), and thereby, they decide, conditions ripe for patricide or filicide.

As the construction boom and expansion of the city reaches even the tiny town where Cem had helped build the well, he finds himself drawn back to Öngören and inevitably sucked into a father-son confrontation that will have echoes of the two ancient tales. The coincidences of the stories are perhaps a little unrealistic but as one character remarks: “Theatre has taught me not to dismiss anything in life as mere coincidence.” To say more in the review would spoil the pleasure of the story.

The last section of the novel is narrated by the red-haired woman, reflecting on the events of the novel. She laments, both from the historical tales and her own life, that:

Whether it was fathers killing their sons, or sons killing fathers, men always emerged victorious, and all that was left for me to do was weep.

But as she unravels her own story, we discover a different perspective on what we had seemingly read in the rest of the novel, and realize that she had far more agency that the rather helpless quote above might imply.

And she herself sees a model for her looks in drawings and paintings of the poet and artist’s model Elizabeth Siddal by the artist and poet, and later her husband, Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the 1850s, such as this one drawn shortly after their marriage:


The original Turkish version of the novel, for reasons made clear in the text, had such a picture on the front cover.

Overall, The Red-Haired Woman is a wonderful blend of literary commentary, father-son relationships with the added dimension of the mother/wife/lover, and the modernization of Istanbul.

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