Gunduz Pamuk was a Turkish businessman. In 1959, he was appointed as IBM Turkey’s first Turkish general manager. He had a cheerful disposition and a tendency to philander. In his youth, he had wanted to be a writer, but he found writing too tiresome, cutting him off from Istanbul’s boisterous social scene, and so he spent his time out on the town. Regularly, he’d disappear without warning. His wife, Sekure, and two sons, Sevket and Orhan, would wait for his return, sometimes for months. Orhan, the youngest, never forgot his father’s absence. Now, at 65, with The Red-Haired Woman, he has published a novel about such absences—or, at least, about the experiences of prodigal fathers and the lonely sons they leave in their wake.
Many of Pamuk’s novels have been concerned with these familial tensions since his debut, Cevdet Bey and His Sons, came out 35 years ago. But this one is different. Written in the French tradition of the conte philosophique, it deals predominantly with the themes of patriarchy and patricide, and it comes with the expected references to Freud and Oedipus Rex. It is also a very personal book. Unlike his earlier works, which often experimented with form, Pamuk’s latest is his most realist and seems to come closest to depicting his own relationship with his father. In his Nobel lecture, “My Father’s Suitcase,” it seems that Pamuk never forgave Gunduz for those disappearances, but he realized that they also set him free, allowing him to mature as an adult and as a writer. “I was so grateful to him, after all: he’d never been a commanding, forbidding, overpowering, punishing, ordinary father, but a father who always left me free, always showed me the utmost respect.” In The Red-Haired Woman, Pamuk puts both the freedom and anger caused by fatherlessness at his novel’s center. By doing so, he also, in more ways than one, captures one of modern Turkey’s central cruxes.
Orhan Pamuk was born into a wealthy Istanbul family in 1952. The Pamuks were what is frequently known as “White Turks”: affluent, secular, educated, and with little relation to Islamic culture or the urban poor. His grandfather had helped build Turkey’s railroads in the 1930s, and the family sent Orhan to an elite school founded by Americans. Most of the Pamuk men went into business. But Orhan didn’t have a taste for business and was more of a bookworm. Reading Marxist thinkers and novelists excited him; more than Istanbul’s social life, he was interested in socialism, and he at first had ambitions to become a painter, before realizing, at the age of 22, that he preferred writing.
Pamuk’s father couldn’t have been less interested. The son was free to do as he liked, and Pamuk set to writing a 600-page bildungsroman in the vein of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. In it, he chronicled a family not unlike his own, tracking the lives of three generations of an Ottoman merchant family. Still in its manuscript form, the novel won what was at the time Turkey’s leading prize for fiction, but Pamuk couldn’t find a publisher for it. One editor feared that the length would scare readers away. When Cevdet Bey and His Sons was finally published in 1982, people loved it. Critics praised the coolness of Pamuk’s prose style; historians admired his presentation of the birth of Turkish capitalism in the hands of young Muslim entrepreneurs. Nonspecialist readers were attracted to the warmth of his family tale. Cevdet Bey reminded many Turks of their grandfathers. He was a particular type of Ottoman gentleman: worldly, benevolent, always present—in many ways, the perfect patriarch.
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By the time Pamuk finished his second novel, Silent House (1983), he had become more interested in exploring the worlds left behind by father figures like Cevdet Bey. Silent House follows a family after the death of a patriarch, Selahattin Darvinoglu, and Pamuk builds the narrative around the streams of consciousness of his widow, his grandchildren, and the manservant who becomes responsible for running the house. The eldest grandchild, a historian, has lost his way in academic life. Another, a university student, has turned to communism. The youngest, a confused teenager, seeks popularity and easy money but lacks self-confidence. All of their stories end in tragedy.
The absence of the father may mean freedom, but it also entails new burdens: One now needs to make one’s own way in the world, a fate that Pamuk himself was not spared. He spent much of his time lost in a search for meaning, wandering the streets of the former imperial capital grappling with, as he recalls in his memoir, Istanbul, “the most basic questions of existence—love, compassion, religion, the meaning of life, jealousy, hatred—in trembling confusion and painful solitude.” It was during these solitary wanderings that Pamuk came to realize that his spiritual crisis echoed the nation’s own.
The Red-Haired Woman links the two in a more explicit way. Set against the backdrop of Turkey’s past four decades, the novel tracks another lost young man, Cem, whose father, a Marxist pharmacist, disappears a few years after the violent military coup in 1980. Like Pamuk, Cem decides early in life that he wants to be an author. But to attend a good university, he first needs to raise money for a cram school, and so he gets a job working for a well-digger named Mahmut.
The manual laborer becomes a surrogate father to Cem and tells him stories, something that, as Cem notes, his own father never did. Mahmut also takes him to the cinema “like a doting father” and develops an interest in Cem’s life, asking him how he spends his time after work. A devout and disciplined man, Mahmut demands from his young assistant a strict devotion to their mission: to avoid all worldly distractions as they dig for water in a small town on the outskirts of Istanbul.
Their work takes many weeks, and during this time the world does find a way to distract Cem: Forced to spend his nights in the small town, he falls in love with an attractive red-haired woman who works for a left-wing theater troupe. Cem’s attraction to such a woman would be frowned upon by Mahmut, and so for a while Cem avoids her: “According to Master Mahmut…it was the apprentice’s duty to learn from his master, to heed his instructions, and to treat him with due deference.” But gradually, Cem comes to despise Mahmut and his piety. He fantasizes about rebelling against him and summarizes the plot of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex to Mahmut. In a fit of rebellious frustration, Cem also sleeps with the red-haired woman, who is twice his age. Overcome with memories of his first sexual experience, he acts carelessly in the dig the following morning, and Mahmut becomes stuck in the well. Panicking, Cem runs to town, but instead of returning with help, he boards the first train to Istanbul and abandons the man who in many ways has become his father, leaving him in the dark hole, dozens of meters beneath the ground, convinced that he has murdered him. He also abandons the red-haired woman.
In Istanbul, the patricidal son grows up and becomes a failed author but a successful businessman. Under Erdogan’s rule, Cem makes a fortune as a property developer. He gets married, but he and his wife remain childless. And then the world he fled all those years ago suddenly comes back to him when Cem is surprised by some news: Before the military coup in 1980, the red-haired woman had been a member of the same Marxist cell that Cem’s father belonged to. Not only that, but they had been lovers. He is also surprised by some other news: He learns that he has a child, a son, from his encounter with the red-haired woman. This isn’t exactly Oedipus Rex, but it’s certainly something close.
Cem’s son, Enver, also seeks meaning in literature, but growing up fatherless in a small village, he turns to religion and to publishing stories in right-wing literary magazines; eventually, he decides to take revenge on the father who refuses to acknowledge him, even after learning about his existence. In the past, Pamuk has excelled at creating such angry characters, but Enver is only sparsely imagined. Pamuk draws him in outline, but the reader meets him too late in the book, so by the time we realize that he is Cem’s son, the Oedipal boy is minutes away from committing murder. When the two meet, Cem considers killing his son out of fear for his own life, but decides against it—and ends up being pushed into the same well that his master, Mahmut, got stuck in two decades before.
Pamuk is a clever writer. But sometimes, as in this book, he can be too clever. He wants to outwit his reader. In his 1985 novella, The White Castle, he managed to do just that: The narrator of that book is a 17th-century Venetian intellectual who is taken prisoner by Ottoman pirates. In Istanbul, the narrator is sold to a Turk, who makes him his manservant. The master is eager to learn about the Western mind, and the slave is ready to teach him about it in order to gain his freedom. By the end of their relationship, the master so strongly resembles the servant, and vice versa, that no one can tell them apart anymore. They change places and live each other’s lives, and we are left to ponder whether the narrator has been the Turkish master all along.
A similar set of tricks are employed in The Red-Haired Woman, but this time they mostly fail: One just feels cheated, as if having walked out of a poorly structured film by M. Night Shyamalan. One possible reason is that Pamuk is up to something else here: He is trying to tell us something about Turkey and its cycles of patriarchal figures and rebellious sons. At the center of his tale is not only Oedipus, but also an Iranian myth collection, Ferdowsi’s 11th-century Book of Kings, that Cem reads obsessively. If Oedipus Rex, in Pamuk’s retelling, is the story of a young man establishing his autonomy through the murder of his father, then Book of Kings—specifically the story of Rostam, a mighty warrior who unwittingly kills his son on the battlefield—provides a cautionary tale about the dangers of father figures. Between these myths, we find contemporary Turkey: controlling fathers (like Erdogan) who are intent on quashing their sons, and rebellious sons (like the Young Turks) who want to supplant their patriarchs.
This dichotomy is schematic and lacks nuance. But it does tell us something about one of the central tensions found in Turkish political culture: In the eyes of irreligious Turks, Erdogan is both Oedipus and Rostam. He has dethroned the nation’s secularist father, Ataturk, with his conservative politics, and he has imposed his own will, often through force, on his children. The frustrations in Turkey are not caused by the personality, or politics, of one authoritarian father or one rebellious son, but rather by competing ones. The Gezi Park protests of 2013 were an attempt to escape this straitjacket: The activists pitching their tents in the park were protesting gentrification, but their Occupy-like demonstration also rejected Turkey’s reigning hierarchies and attempted to transcend the binary of fathers and sons. But as we know, in the absence of a set of leaders and a formal political movement, such efforts are often merely transient.
In the case of The Red-Haired Woman, we discover one more twist: Cem’s patricidal son, who turns out to be the narrator of the book, has been locked up in Silivri Prison, today associated with those imprisoned for last year’s failed coup attempt. The reader is left in the dark about what to make of this; Pamuk has intentionally blurred the allegorical possibilities. But this ambiguity is perhaps a fitting end for a novel about Turkey, a country whose political tribulations in the past five years—the uprising in 2013, the attacks by ISIS in 2015, and the coup attempt in 2016—have made it increasingly difficult for its people to tell fact from fiction, what is real from allegory.