‘For a moment, she looked at me as if she already knew me … it was as if we were both trying to summon, perhaps even to question, an ancient memory.’
According to Orhan Pamuk, reality is haunted by myth. His book ‘The Red Haired Woman’, is essentially a fictional inquiry into the literary foundations of myths that lay at the heart of European and Islamic civilization, particularly the story of Oedipus Rex by Sophocles and that of Sohrab and Rustum from the great Iranian epic, The Shahnameh.
The story is set in three parts.
The first part is narrated by Cem who is 16 years old. His father, a leftist Istanbul pharmacist, is often taken away by the State Police and in the end, abandons his family for more selfish reasons. Cem, left alone with his mother, takes on a summer job guarding his uncle’s orchard where he meets Mahmut, the master well digger and agrees to become his apprentice.
Together they move to the fictitious town of Öngören, just outside of Istanbul, where they set about digging a well to provide water for a local businessman’s factory. As master Mahmut teaches Cem the ancient Byzantine methods of digging wells, he becomes a father figure to him, inspiring both love and fear as well as awe.
‘According to Master Mahmut, the deeper we dug, the closer we got to the sphere of God and his angels – although the cool breeze that blew at midnight reminded us that the blue dome of the sky and the thousands of trembling stars that clung to it were to be found in the opposite direction.’
In the evenings, beneath the star-filled sky, Mahmut would tell Cem stories and sometimes they would take a walk into town to buy cigarettes and drink tea in the square. On one particular evening, Cem spots a beautiful red-haired woman who becomes the object of his fantasies.
Soon both the master well digger and the red-haired woman take on a mythic story of their own and all the characters in the book find themselves standing on a path where history, myth, and fate intersect and overflow into everyday life.
‘When you grow up without a father, you think there is no center and no end to the universe and you think you can do whatever you want… But eventually you find you don’t know what you want, and you start looking for some sort of meaning, some focus in your life; someone to tell you no.’
Cem leaves Öngören forever changed and wanting to forget the events that had occurred in that small town in order to live a new life but the myths of the stories that he has been telling catch up with him in unexpected ways.
What this story gives is a deeper insight into the nature of father and son relationships, their purpose and the ways in which they are not what we have been taught to believe. This story questions its deeper purpose at the same time questioning our relationship to authority and truth and the nature of reality.
Orhan Pamuk is a master storyteller. I have read many of his books, my favorite so far being ‘A Strangeness In My Mind’ and now the ‘The Red-Haired Woman’ – pure timeless magic from the first page to the last.
Note – The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk was a book that I read by chance. Feeling tired, confused and overwhelmed, I decided that the best way to relax was to lose myself in a book. I had reached a type of impasse in my thinking and thought that if I just gave into something fully for a couple of hours, the answers that I was seeking would come to me – somehow. I brushed my teeth, got ready for bed and walked over to my bookshelf – I knew the book I wanted and even though I had been saving it for another occasion, I had this feeling that I should read it now. I had already decided before walking over to the bookcase that the book I chose would reveal something secret to me but instead, it revealed to me what I already suspected – that not only was life haunted by myth but that because of this we should choose both our myths and our illusions carefully.