“It’s hard to work out what fits where, what is relevant and what isn’t” – The Red Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk

trhwopThe things you hear in old myths and folktales always end up happening in real life” declares the narrator towards the end of The Red Haired Woman, Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel, which possibly tries to be a fable for modern day times (in Turkish the title sounds like a play on Little Red Riding Hood).

The novel tells the story of Cem (pronounced Gem), an educated boy – a ‘little gentleman’ as he puts it himself – who spends the summer before university as a well-digger’s apprentice in a small town called Öngören. The apprentice and his master develop a pretty intense relationship; working together all day and sharing a camp by night, and Cem begins to compare the well digger to his father, who abandoned him when he was young. They pass the time by telling stories: Cem horrifies the well digger with Oedipus, and the well digger fascinates Cem with the Iranian tale of Rostram and Sohrab. The fairy tale ends when, distracted by his fascination with the red haired woman of the title, the boy causes an accident, then has a mad moment and runs away in confusion, leaving his master at the bottom of the well they are digging.

The second section recounts Cem’s efforts to put the past behind him and get on with the rest of his life. He gets married, founds a successful business. Times change, Öngören gets gobbled up by Istanbul, welldigging goes out of mode. Cem regrets not having a child, resents his father for being absent, and feeds his obsession with the two myths which marked his summer of welldigging by travelling around the world looking for traces of them in museums. Another text recommended to Cem by his father (on one of the rare occasions they meet) provides an excuse for a bit of political discussion. After a dramatic finale we hear from the red haired woman herself, in a final section in which all is revealed and ends are neatly tied up.

It starts well. The ‘little gentleman’ narrator is one that Pamuk does comfortably and convincingly; the story runs along smoothly. In the next part of the book things get a bit bogged down. There’s so much peripheral detail packed in that it’s hard to work out what fits where, what is relevant and what isn’t.

What does it all mean? The last Pamuk novel we reviewed, A Strangeness in my Mind, had a lot going on, but not in a way you had to second guess all the time. The Red Haired Woman, on the face of it so much smaller and less ambitious, turns out to be doubly complex. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy reading it – I did, it’s just that after a promising start, I spent most of the rest of the book disappearing down rabbit holes.

Any Cop?: Too clever for me. Do read it and let me know what it’s about.


Lucy Chatburn


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