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.