Entertainment Books

Friday 23 March 2018

Myth and reality overlap in simple parable

Fiction: The Red-Haired Woman, Orhan Pamuk, Trans by Ekin Oklap, Faber, hdbk, 251 pages, €21.50

Public vilification: Orhan Pamuk has spoken out about Turkey's genocidal past, leading him to take political exile for a while
Public vilification: Orhan Pamuk has spoken out about Turkey's genocidal past, leading him to take political exile for a while
Orhan Pamuk's The Red-haried Woman

JP O'Malley

Nobel Prize-winner's new novel is a morality tale that keeps Turkish politics and history close to its heart.

Being a writer in Turkey these days isn't easy. One can be jailed for simply expressing a dissenting voice that disagrees with the current Islamist authoritarian government. History helps explain this slide towards religious authoritarianism.

Ever since the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the country has gravitated towards western, modern, secular values.

Turkish literary culture was more likely during the 20th century to be inspired by Zola, Joyce, Kafka or Baudelaire, than anything from the eastern canon, but with a recent rise in support for Islamist ideology - where politics, the state, culture and religious conservatism all work hand in glove - Turkey appears to be culturally closer to the Ottoman Empire: which collapsed following World War I after 600 years of rule.

In novels like Snow and A Strangeness in My Mind, the Istanbul-born writer - and 2006 winner of the Nobel Prize for literature - Orhan Pamuk has consistently grappled with this double-sided sword of Turkish identity: where secular western modernity lies on one side, and strong religious conviction - pointing eastwards - lies on the other.

Pamuk's writing is overtly political. In both his work, and his public persona, the novelist has consistently dealt with the complicated triangle that is history, mythology, and the state; speaking out, too, about Turkey's controversial genocidal past with Armenians, and about discrimination against the Kurdish population. This resulted in death threats and public vilifications, and saw Pamuk leave Turkey in political exile for a short time. Even though it's a different beast from the aforementioned novels, The Red-Haired Woman always has politics and history close to its heart.

We read, for example, of trains "heading into the direction of Europe", or of "Islamists and nationalists clashing in the street" over talk of Turkey joining the European Union.

Predominately, the narrative is told in the first person by Cem: a prosperous middle-class engineer from Istanbul.

He recalls a summer in 1985 spent working digging wells with a man known as Master Mahut.

The relationship between the master and his apprentice develops over time, as the pair form a father-and-son-like bond.

Cem and his master then begin exchanging stories and myths - two of which become crucially important as the plot progresses as Pamuk uses these to display how life imitates myth.

Cem, coming from a secular family, tells his master the story of Oedipus Rex: a classic western myth that hails from Ancient Greece.

The Athenian tragedy recalls the story of how Oedipus, the king, kills his own father, Laius, the former king of Thebes. At the time, Oedipus is not aware of the identity of either his mother or father, but he soon discovers that he has, in fact, committed an act of incest - sleeping with his own mother, Jocasta. Upon discovering this, Oedipus gouges out his own eyes, while Jocasta hangs herself.

Master Mahut, hailing from a Muslim background, is not impressed with the Oedipus myth.

So he chooses to tell his apprentice a story from the eastern tradition. It comes from the 'Shahnameh': an epic poem written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi in the 10th century.

The particular tale concerns the story of Rostam and Sohrab, where a father tragically stabs his son in the heart during a great battle between Persia and Turan.

Despite coming from two opposing cultures, both myths share a striking similarity: a violent death occurs between father and son based on sexual jealousy.

Even though Cem builds a strong bond with his master - through the telling of these myths and through his digging work - his loyalties and allegiances begin to lie elsewhere.

Namely, to the promiscuous "Red-Haired Woman", who becomes the narrator's muse.

Cem falls in love with her and they quickly consummate their relationship.

Shortly afterwards, an incident occurs where the master gets stuck down the well while digging for water. Cem, panic-stricken and fearing for his personal freedom, leaves his master at the bottom of the well; fleeing to Istanbul, thinking he has been part in a manslaughter.

If the first part of the novel sets up the story's action with brilliant immediacy and a captivating voice, the middle section lags and stumbles a little bit.

We read about Cem's rise to affluence as an engineer. He travels widely, falls in love, marries and reunites with his father - who was once tortured by the Turkish government and imprisoned for his Marxist beliefs.

All the while, though, the Red-Haired Woman and Master Mahut haunt Cem's memory.

And so, almost 25 years after his romantic summer in the small town of Öngören, the past comes back to haunt Cem: when he receives a letter from Enver, a man claiming to be his son, whose mother happens to be the Red-Haired Woman.

Arising from conflicting views on moral duty, tension between Cem and Enver unfolds when they finally meet in a mythical-like setting as the novel reaches its dramatic conclusion.

Pamuk's prose oozes subtlety and sensuality. And Cem's melancholic lonely voice usually leans towards a philosophical tone of uncertainty.

The Red-Haired Woman is a simple parable about morality, but everything tends to become disguised in conceits, metaphors and cultural references: where historical context is a recurring theme. And where myth and reality constantly overlap each other.

After finishing this concise novel, I was left asking myself two lingering questions: how does myth inform our sense of what is good and moral in the world? And what control do we really have over our lives, in spite of all our access to knowledge and history?

As Cem himself admits to his own son when they finally meet: "Our character is forged not just by our freedoms, but also by the forces of history and memory."

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