The Red-Haired Woman

When Cem, the narrator of this novel by Orham Pamuk and translated by Ekin Oklap, was a boy, his father, a political activist, left his family. Cem and his mother were just barely getting by, but Cem had big dreams of becoming a writer someday. To fund his education, he decided to take a job digging wells in a small town outside Istanbul. There, he finds a new father figure in Mahmut, the well-digger.

Mahmut is severe with Cem, rejecting his stories and cautioning him against going to see the performances of traveling theatrical troupe that was staying in the town. But the Cem had become obsessed with the red-haired woman who was part of the troupe and couldn’t stay away.

The novel follows Cem through his time as a well-digger and then into adulthood, when he’s haunted by his brief relationship with the red-haired woman and the memory of his final moments with Mahmut. But he moves on and becomes a successful engineer and has a happy yet childless marriage. Now, aside from his business, he’s obsessed with the complimentary stories of Oedipus, the Greek king who unknowingly kills his father, and Rostan, the Persian hero who unknowingly kills his son.

This is the first book by Pamuk that I’ve ever read, and I understand that it’s not his best. Reviews have been mostly mixed. I did enjoy the writing very much, though. The chapters detailing the tedium of well digging managed to hold my interest, and I appreciated the descriptive prose. The presentation of the various father-son stories was sometimes heavy-handed, but I cared about how it would all turn out. And the end of Cem’s time with Mahmut comes as a jolt and a shock.

Where the novel falls down, however, is in its title character. The red-haired woman does have a name, but we rarely hear it. She’s barely a person at all. I suppose her non-presence reveals something about Cem, who tells her story. And what it reveals is not particularly unusual, even if it is distasteful.

The problem is that for most of the book, the red-haired woman doesn’t even seem necessary to the story, which is mostly about fathers and sons. Every time she turned up, I got irritated. Her role changes by the end of the book, where she is given more agency and presence, but the revelations about her and about the novel itself make the narrative’s earlier treatment of her seem implausible—or ingenious. I’m not sure which.

It’s hard to sort out all of this without getting very meta and sharing some spoilers, so don’t read any more if you want to read this book and don’t want to know the secrets revealed at the end, when the red-haired woman finally gets to speak.

In the final section of the book, we learn that we’ve been reading a book by the son of Cem and the red-haired woman. In the book, he’s trying to work out his own feelings about the death of his father, Cem. So this means the whole objectification that occurs early in the novel is actually the son’s objectification of the mother. And this idea works if you look back at the story of Oedipus. But is the son writing his mother the way he sees her or the way he believes Cem saw her? It doesn’t reflect well on Cem—that’s for sure. And the woman gets the last word, which is satisfying.

But I wonder if we’re even meant to notice any of this. Not having read Pamuk before, I don’t know how well he usually writes women. Male writers objectifying women is nothing new, but I hope this web of narrators means he’s attempting something more interesting.

I was interested enough in the narrative possibilities and the writing to be willing to read more Pamuk, so I welcome any recommendations you have!

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2 Responses to The Red-Haired Woman

  1. Elle says:

    I’ve heard that this one’s rather dreary in the ways that you describe – I’ve never read any Pamuk either but would be much more interested in My Name Is Red, which came out about the same time he won the Nobel.

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