Orhan Pamuk, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, continues his consideration of a culture’s doggedly unwavering tradition at odds with its constantly shifting modernity. He returns to Istanbul, where his previous novel, the immensely moving “A Strangeness in My Mind,” leaves off.
Once again, a young man leaves home to search for himself in the great city. Once again, his memory of a beautiful woman who once crossed his path spurs him onward. Once again, the city is, essentially, Pamuk’s most revelatory character.
The life of Cem Çelik is recounted in two sections, “before” and “after.” In 1984, Cem is a 16-year-old would-be writer living with his mother and father in a small apartment in Istanbul. Life at home is tentative at best; the ongoing arguments between his traditional mother and his leftist father, Cem suspects, are over another woman.
One night, after Cem delivers some supper to him at The Life Pharmacy, his father doesn’t come home. The next summer, Cem finds himself the apprentice to a master welldigger who is determined to find water on a desolate plain some 30 kilometers from Istanbul. Cem hopes to make enough money to stay in school.
Master Mahmut, the welldigger, is a poor man, but he refuses to turn his back on the profession he has chosen, believing that its traditional methods will eventually yield success. He allows nothing to distract him, neither the intense heat nor the nagging thoughts that the present well will not find water. It is backbreaking, solitary work, with Mahmut down the well and Cem above ground.
But closeness develops between the two, a touching version of father and son. Says Mahmut: “To survive, a welldigger must be able to trust his apprentice as he would his own son.”
They share tales with each other, tales they have gathered or read over the years. Some of the tales are traditionally Turkish; some are stories from other literatures of the world. All involve the tentative, sometimes violent, relationships between fathers and sons. Cem becomes especially focused on Sophocles’ play “Oedipus the King.”
Then, Cem spies the Red-Haired Woman, an actress in The Theatre of Morality Tales, a travelling troupe that presents politically charged set pieces under a tent in town. She is twice his age, and she teaches him about the world in another way. Of their night together, Cem remembers, “It was momentous, and it was miraculous. My perception of life, of women, and of myself all changed instantaneously.”
Soon after that, after a moment of abject carelessness, Cem makes a decision that so alters him, it is decades before he returns to where he came from and who he was.
The novel’s “after” section deals with Cem’s adult life, his becoming an “engineering geologist,” his marriage, his memories of the night with the Red-Haired Woman, and his inexorable return to the summer he realizes formed him, the summer he began this journey in that small town that has now become part of Istanbul proper.
“The Red-Haired Woman” is, indeed, melancholic. It lacks the gentleness of “A Strangeness in My Mind.” It also contains a brief third section that is electrifying as it channels the Oedipus legend, a section that is the fitting end to another Orhan Pamuk tale about how “when there is no one to observe us, the other self we keep hidden inside can come out and do as it pleases.”
Steven Whitton is a recently retired professor of English.