One of Orhan Pamuk‘s great virtues as a storyteller is his ability to create situations in which several different versions of reality are all possible within the narrative that he has established, and it is — at least for a time — left to the reader to decide which one is the truth of the tale, or whether more than one option might in fact be happening simultaneously. In Snow, as I recall, there is a period when a revolution might be happening in an Anatolian city, or it might be that a theater troupe is staging an event meant to look like a revolution but is really just a play, or it might be that the troupe’s play spontaneously kicks off an actual revolution. There may have been more possibilities; I have not read the book in a long time. (It’s a very science-fictional mode for a mundane novelist, which may be one reason I like many of his books so much.)
In The Red-Haired Woman, he’s up to something different. Revelations later in the book will cause readers to look at earlier events in a different light. It’s not so much that there are several possibilities open about the events of the book — although there are — it’s that looking back, a reader sees what Pamuk has previously described may have a very different meaning, if indeed it happened that way at all. Pamuk has been wrestling with this sort of thing for his whole career — a different aspect shows up in The Black Book — and in The Red-Haired Woman he executes it exceptionally well.
He begins: “I had wanted to be a writer. But after the events that I am about to describe, I studied engineering geology and became a building contractor. Even so, readers shouldn’t conclude from my telling the story now that it is over, that I’ve put it all behind me. The more I remember, the deeper I fall into it. Perhaps you, too, will follow, lured by the enigma of fathers and sons.” (p. 3) It’s a fair warning, one that I completely ignored.
Pamuk’s narrator, Cem, begins the book as a youth in high school. His father owns a pharmacy, affording the family a reasonably secure, middle-class life. But the father is also a committed leftist in a Turkey that is lurching in and out of military rule, with periods of rightist democratic governments in between. Sometimes the narrator’s father is in jail; sometimes he is on the run; and sometimes he is in the pharmacy as if the other two possibilities barely existed, except for shooing Cem away when his political friends come around. As The Red-Haired Woman begins, Cem’s father has disappeared again. His mother has announced that there is not enough money, and so he takes a job at a neighborhood bookstore. It’s congenial work, and Mr Deniz, the bookstore’s owner, supports Cem’s dreams of becoming a writer.
Money remains tight, and Cem’s mother takes them out of Istanbul to Gebze where they “were to stay with my maternal aunt and her husband in Gebze, living as guests in the extension they had built in their garden. My aunt’s husband was to give me a job, and I calculated that if I spent the first half of the summer at it, by the end of July I could resme work at the Deniz Bookstore in Besiktas while attending cram school [to get into a good university]. Mr Deniz knew how sad I was not to be living in Besiktas anymore; he said I could spend the night at the bookstore whenever I wanted to. (p. 8) The job that the uncle arranges is guarding a fruit orchard, which for a teenager is every bit as interesting as it sounds. Soon Cem is following the drama of a well being dug by hand on the neighboring property.
“During the day, the welldigger rarely emerged. The first time I saw him, he was on his lunch break having a cigarette. He was tall, slender, and handsome, like my father. But unlike my naturally calm and cheerful father, the welldigger was irascible. He frequently scolded the apprentices.” (p. 8) This is Master Mahmut. One day, after water was struck but before the concrete shaft securing the well was completed,
“I walked over to the well thinking there was no one there. Master Mahmut appeared from among the cherry and olive trees, holding a part from the electric motor he’d installed to power the pump.
“‘You seem curious about this work, young man!’
“I thought of those people in Jules Verne’s novel who went in one end of the world and came out on the other side.
“‘I’m going to dig another well on the outskirts of Küçükçekmece. These two [apprentices] are leaving me. Shall I take you along instead?’
“Seeing that I was hesitant, he explained that if he did his job right, a welldigger’s apprentice could earn four times as much as an orchard watchman. We’d be done in ten days, and I’d be home in no time.” (p. 9)
Pamuk gives a quick overview of class relations in 1980s Turkey. “‘I will never allow it!’ said my mother when I got home that evening. ‘You will not be a welldigger. You’re going to university.'” (p. 9) Like many a middle-class youth before him, Cem is taken with the idea of physical labor and the quick money it can bring.
More of the Turkish way of doing things kicks in:
“‘If the boy wants to work hard and make his own money, don’t knock the wind out of his sails,’ said my aunt’s husband. ‘Let me ask around and find out who this welldigger is.’
“My aunt’s husband, who was a lawyer, arranged a meeting at his offices in the town hall with my mother and the welldigger. In my absence, the three of them agreed that there would be a second apprentice who would go down into the well so I wouldn’t have to. My aunt’s husband informed me what my daily wages would be.” (p. 10)
Three father figures for Cem passing quickly through the narrative: Mr Deniz, Master Mahmut, and Cem’s uncle the lawyer. It’s Master Mahmut who will come to fill the pages, as Cem follows him up to a plateau some miles outside of Istanbul to the northwest, there to dig for water so that a landowner may set up factories and grow richer. Pamuk tells of a summer of coming of age, and he adds a mythic level with Master Mahmut — who is descending into the underworld to bring back life, or at least life-giving water — telling his apprentices stories nearly every night. Sometimes the stories are from the Koran; sometimes they seem to be things Master Mahmut makes up on the spot, drawing on folk tales and whatever comes to mind. He tells a moving tale from Persia, of a father who accidentally kills his son on the field of battle. One night Master Mahmut asks Cem to tell a story. Feeling stroppy, Cem tells the tale of Oedipus. He does not get asked again. They see shooting stars as many nights as not, nights thus rich in portent.
The titular red-haired woman makes her first appearance on the evening of the third day of the digging job, when the little crew has walked into a small town nearby to buy cigarettes for Master Mahmut and perhaps enjoy some tea on the square.
“As the horse and I reached the open doorway, two more figures emerged: first, a man, maybe five or six years older than I was, and then a tall, red-haired woman who might have been his elder sister. There was something unusual, and very alluring, about this woman. Maybe the lady in jeans was the mother of this red-haired woman and her little brother.
“‘I’ll go get it,’ the lovely red-haired woman called out to her mother before disappearing inside again.
“But just as she was stepping back into the house, she glanced at me and the elderly horse behind me. A melancholy smile formed on her perfectly curved lips, as if she’d seen something unusual in me or the horse. She was tall, her smile unexpectedly sweet and tender.” (pp. 22–23)
Naturally, things do not go according to the original plan, and there are tests of wit and persistence. That summer, Part I of the book, shapes much of the rest of Cem’s life. Part II brings the story from the 1980s up through the book’s present of 2012 or so. The events of Part I continue to echo through Cem’s life, as questions seem to be answered but are not, and the myths invoked in the beginning come closer to the main narrative. Part III brings surprises, and displays Pamuk’s gift for making the reader question what has gone before.