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As a fatherless son, so a sonless father will be embraced by none. But after the events I am about to describe, I studied engineer in geology and became a building contractor. The more I remember, the deeper I fall into it. Perhaps you, too, will follow, lured by the enigma of father and sons.
The As a fatherless son, so a sonless father will be embraced by none. The Red-Haired Woman is the latest novel from Orhan Pamuk, one of those authors of whose books I am a completist, and this, while not perhaps hitting the Nobel-Prize worthy heights of his greatest work Snow, is another excellent addition to his works and my shelves. Again my review of the previous book: Pamuk himself, it must be said, commented that he is a big fan of the translation, which is the ultimate endorsement.
The narrator [of most of the novel] begins the story living in Istanbul with his mother, his father, a middle-class pharmacist but also a leftist activist, having, after several periods of prolonged absence both while politically active and while detained by the authorities, finally permanently left the family home and re-married.
Master Mahmut is one of the last practitioners of an art that had existed for thousands of years, although rather dismissive of some of the more elaborate rituals with divining rods and whispered prayers of some of his peers. These particular skills led some of the old well-diggers to become convinced that, like the shamans of Central Asia, they, too, were in possession of supernatural powers and the gift of extrasensory perception, allowing them to commune with subterranean gods and jinn.
I remember as a child hearing my father laugh at such tales, but those longing for cheap ways to find water wanted to believe them...
The reality of digging wells, as Cem soons discovers, is of back-breaking and dangerous work. Pamuk describes this in almost painful detail, and at first it appears the novel is largely telling the story of a dying craft in the same way as the boza seller in A Strangeness in My Mind. Pamuk himself had been wanting to tell the story of a well-digger looking for water in apparently barren-land ever since he met one while writing his The Black Book over 25 years earlier.
But as Master Mahmut and Cem rest in their tent each night from their exertions, the old man tells the apprentice stories, including that of Joseph, favourite son of his father, and abandoned down a well by his brothers.
The well-digger draws the moral from the story that A father must be fair. The next night, particularly tired after striking rock in his digging, Master Mahmut asks Cem to contribute a story of his own. Cem, presumably prompted by the talk of fathers, sons and blindness, tells the well-digger the story of Oedipus. In the town, the 16 year-old Cem captures sight of the eponymous red-haired woman, in her thirties but mysterious and alluring. She turns out to be part of a small troupe of performing artists, The Theatre of Morality Tales, and when Cem watches her performance, it concludes with a powerful scene that he later, after researching the story, finds is that of Rostam and Sohrab from the Persian epic poem Shahnameh.
In a reversal of the Greek story, here the father Rostam ends up, unknowingly, fighting and killing his son Sohrab. He returns to Istanbul where he contemplates both what happens, but also the two tales of Oedipus and of Rostam and Sohrab.
In the Oedipal tale he seems particularly fascinating with how he could end up sleeping with his mother a woman at least sixteen years older than he was. And the story of Rostam and Sohrab is one he needs to rediscover.
Once upon a time, millions of people knew it by heart — from Tabriz to Istanbul, from Bosnia to Trabzon — and when they recalled this story, they found the meaning in their lives. Pamuk also himself has remarked that the Oedipus and Rostam stories illustrate different aspects of Western and Eastern culture: Cem marries and - as the opening quote suggests - inspired by his well-digging experience enters into the construction business, rather than pursue his literary dreams. He and his wife prove unable to have their own children, and instead their construction company, which they name Sohrab, and which grows spectacularly in the rapidly expanding Istanbul, making Cem a rich and well-known businessman, as well as allowing the novel to touch on themes of Westernisation and individualism in the traditional Turkish society: Sohrab was our son.
He was growing up much faster than most children, outperforming his peers, and winning accolades for his business acumen. The coincidences of the stories are perhaps a little unrealistic but as one character remarks: Theatre has taught me not to dismiss anything in life as mere coincidence.
To say more in the review would spoil the pleasure of the story. The last section of the novel is narrated by the red-haired woman, reflecting on the events of the novel. She laments, both from the historical tales and her own life, that: Whether it was fathers killing their sons, or sons killing fathers, men always emerged victorious, and all that was left for me to do was weep. But as she unravels her own story, we discover a different perspective on what we had seemingly read in the rest of the novel, and realise that she had far more agency that the rather helpless quote above might imply.
The original Turkish version of the novel, for reasons made clear in the text, had such a picture on the front cover - perhaps my one criticism of the English version is that the publisher has chosen a far more abstract cover.