Fathers and Sons

The Red-Haired Woman: A novel BY Orhan Pamuk. Knopf. Hardcover, 272 pages. $26.

The cover of The Red-Haired Woman: A novel

Not long after finishing his first novel, Cevdet Bey and His Sons, a family saga in the tradition of Buddenbrooks, the Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk says he “began to regret having written something so outmoded.” (Perhaps that explains why the book, published in 1982, has never been translated into English.) Determined to separate himself from the regnant Turkish tradition of realistic, engagé fiction—which he deemed “narrow and parochial”—the young novelist resolved to become more “experimental.”

The problem, as he saw it, was that the Westernizing elite of the early Turkish Republic “lacked the confidence necessary to create a national culture rich in its own symbols and rituals. They did not strive to create . . . an organic combination of East and West; they just put Western and Eastern things together.” Indeed, when it came to literature, they often renounced Eastern influences entirely—in the process rendering Turkish fiction imitative and passé. (Yaşar Kemal’s brilliant adaptation of Anatolian bardic traditions, as in the classic 1955 novel Memed, My Hawk, apparently didn’t impress Pamuk.) “My generation had to invent a modern national literature,” he argues.

His solution, inspired by stints at Columbia and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was to reexamine the Islamic corpus “with a Calvinoesque or Borgesian mind frame” in order to “appreciate its wealth of games, gimmicks, and parables” without endorsing its religious content. He began to “take the cultural past—our traditions—and play with it, to produce new effects.” That approach became his calling card. “All my books are made from a mixture of Eastern and Western methods, styles, habits, and histories,” Pamuk says. They “rise out of these two poles, attracting and repelling each other.”

Pamuk’s breakthrough came in The White Castle, his third novel, a postmodern tale set in the seventeenth century about an Ottoman scholar and a Venetian slave who influence and imitate each other to such an extent that they become indistinguishable. The novel’s “theme of impersonation is reflected in the fragility Turkey feels when faced with Western culture,” Pamuk says.

This jealousy—the anxiety about being influenced by someone else—resembles Turkey’s position when it looks west. You know, aspiring to become Westernized and then being accused of not being authentic enough. Trying to grab the spirit of Europe and then feeling guilty about the imitative drive.

This theme recurs throughout his work. More often than not, it emerges from the ruminations of a character who, by Pamuk’s own admission, is a cipher for himself.

In Pamuk’s latest book, The Red-Haired Woman, his avatar is a bookish Istanbulite, Cem, who struggles with “the enigma of fathers and sons.” In the summer of 1986, after his father disappears, plunging the family into poverty, Cem apprentices himself to a master well digger, Mahmut, to earn money for school. Over the next several weeks, they delve into the earth, in search of an elusive aquifer. To while away the time, master regales apprentice with stories about fathers, sons, responsibility, and fate drawn from the Qur’an and other traditional sources. These don’t make an impression at first, but in later years, “when I grasped the immeasurable effect that Master Mahmut’s stories had over the course of my life, I started reading anything I could find about their origins,” Cem says, portentously. This kind of ham-fisted foreshadowing is unfortunately rampant. For careful readers, it gives the game away.

Cem comes to regard his master as a father figure. Yet during the long days he spends carting away earth while Mahmut burrows below ground, he also comes to appreciate solitude. “I am most completely myself when nobody’s watching,” he realizes. “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.” His affection for Mahmut notwithstanding, Cem begins to resent his master’s dictates as infringements on his burgeoning individuality. One evening, out of spite, he recounts the tale of Oedipus, knowing that its account of patricide and incest will unsettle the older man.

Meanwhile, Cem also becomes obsessed, and has a brief dalliance, with the eponymous Red-Haired Woman, who performs with a left-wing theater troupe. He is particularly taken with the group’s enactment of a scene from the Persian epic Shahnameh, in which the hero Rostam kills his son in battle. This tableau of filicide—a mirror image of the story of Oedipus—turns out to be something Cem will “never forget.”

The same can be said of what follows. The next morning, Cem inadvertently drops a bucket full of debris on his master, twenty-five meters below. Fearing that he will be arrested for negligent homicide, he absconds, racked with guilt, back to Istanbul. This accident ends the first section of the book. The tale up to this point has been engaging and deftly told. The scenes have been finely observed and described, in a series of short chapters that feature a good balance between action and rumination.

The next section is different. Since it covers decades rather than weeks, following Cem from high school through middle age, its narrative is necessarily sketchy and selective, relying more on summary than on description. Deciding that “the best thing to do is to act as if nothing happened,” Cem buckles down and wins a spot at a top university, where he meets and marries a girl named Ayşe, who turns out to be barren. The portrait of their childless marriage, and of the way in which their determination not to be overwhelmed by sadness brings them close, is one of the book’s more plausible aspects. So is the sketch of Cem’s business life. Moving steadily up the economic ladder, from government clerk to corporate engineer to prosperous and politically connected real-estate developer, he acquires properties all over Istanbul. “I felt like a sultan trying to forget his lack of an heir by annexing new provinces to his empire,” Cem says.

Although secure in his wealth, Cem feels an existential lack. He takes refuge in a morbid obsession with depictions of patricide and filicide, particularly the stories of Oedipus and Rostam. The former, he feels, is somehow responsible for his fate:

I had told [Master Mahmut] the story of Prince Oedipus only to upset him, but then somehow I had ended up retracing the actions of the protagonist whose story I’d chosen. That was why Master Mahmut wound up stuck at the bottom of a well: it was all owing to a story, a myth.

The latter, he thinks, might help him “solve the riddle of [his] own life and finally land on peaceful shores.” Tracking down a copy of the Shahnameh in a Turkish translation (no easy task, since “after two hundred years of striving to Westernize, no one in Turkey was interested any longer in this profusion of tales”), he finds that its “mixture of history and myth appealed to me, as did the way the book started off as an eerie fable before turning into a kind of morality tale about family and ethics”—a description that fits The Red-Haired Woman itself all too well.

At this point, the novel is overwhelmed by Pamuk’s penchant for obtrusive philosophizing. Cem travels the world, taking in what seems like every extant representation of these stories—literary, visual, and cinematic. His encounters provide Pamuk more opportunities than he needs to explicate the book’s theme: namely, the difficulties men have in arriving at authentic and stable identities, because of their daddy issues. Alas, these observations morph into recapitulations of the antinomies Pamuk built his career on: to wit, the difficulties of reconciling authenticity with innovation, expectation with desire, belonging with selfhood, tradition with modernity, and—lurking behind everything, as always—the values of the East with those of the West.

The novel’s plot snaps back into gear toward the end, when Cem is contacted by a man claiming to be his son by the Red-Haired Woman. The son, who shares many of his father’s proclivities and obsessions, files a paternity suit, which stands to make him—not Ayşe—the primary inheritor of Cem’s real-estate empire.

Pamuk’s plotting is so overdetermined—and so relentlessly in service to his unsubtle thematic arguments—that the novel’s denouement is tiresomely predictable. After all this talk of Oedipus and Rostam, one can guess how things turn out, more or less. Suffice it to say, in the interest of maintaining as much suspense as possible: Father and son fight; one ends up dead; the other ends up in prison, pending trial. We learn that the novel we are reading is the survivor’s apologia. The ending casts doubt on everything that has come before. Is the narrator to be trusted? It is clear that he wishes to demonstrate that the death was a case of self-defense, and that the altercation was the inevitable result of mythic forces embedded in both father’s and son’s psyches—not a grubby property dispute. But how accurate is his account?

Pamuk’s postmodern puzzles are as meticulous as ever, and The Red-Haired Woman contains a wealth of atmospheric detail and memorable scenes. But he recycles situations and set pieces from his earlier books to a maddening degree. I am not sure what benefit the novel derives from his repetition of a mystery plot revolving around a dead body in a well (My Name Is Red), a narrator revealed in the closing pages to be potentially unreliable (The White Castle), the idea that men are driven to kill by obsession with particular texts (The Black Book, The New Life), or the employment of miniature paintings to illustrate themes (My Name Is Red)—to choose just a few of the most obvious examples. This recycling makes it impossible to regard his latest book as anything but a minor, derivative work. It also makes his previous novel—the more straightforward and successful A Strangeness in My Mind—seem like an aberration rather than a sign of late-career reinvention. That is a shame. For what was once fresh about Pamuk’s antinomic combinations of Western and Eastern influences now seems merely formulaic—almost like a shtick.

It’s ironic—but perhaps inevitable—that an author so fixated on questions of imitation and authenticity has turned into a practitioner of self-pastiche. I suspect his writing would be better served if he unshackled it from the grand task he set himself some seven books ago. In any case, if Pamuk wants to break new ground, rather than cultivate a brand, he should be concerned not with sons’ emulation of fathers, or Turkey’s emulation of the West. Pamuk should be concerned with his own emulation—of himself.

Marc Edward Hoffman lives in Istanbul.