Of Innocence, Fathers and Sons

The depiction of the wide spectrum of family dynamics is ubiquitous in the world of literature. One of the most explored subject is the dynamics of father and son relationships, a subject that familiar to most. One of the most renowned of these literary references is found in the annals of Greek classic literature. Oedipus Rex, a play written by Sophocles, tells the story of how a son, who was supposed to murdered because of an oracle, fulfilled his destiny . Everyone is familiar with how the story ended, and how it originated the modern term Oedipal complex.

Nobel Laureate in Literature Orhan Pamuk brings in his own take on this age-old literary trope, sans the Oedipal complex, through his latest novel The Red-Haired Woman. The Turkish wordsmith weaved the tale of Cem Çelik. Referred to as a “little gentleman”, Cem is the son of a leftist Istanbul pharmacist whose activism and politics took precedence over his role as a father and as a husband. Cem’s father would regularly disappear and on one of these lengthy disappearances, Cem applied as an apprentice to a master well-digger, Master Mahmut.

From the center of Istanbul, the 16-year old Cem moved to the town of Öngören, a military base on the outskirts of Istanbul. Together with a fellow apprentice, the trio set out to dig a well on an arid plateau near the town. The well will be used to provide water for a local businessman’s factory. During one of their excursions to the town, Cem met the older red-haired woman, firing his fantasies. In a percolation of events, Cem was forced to retreat back to Istanbul where he built a reputation for himself. Despite becoming a wealthy and successful businessman, his past haunts him.

“When you grow up without a father, you think there is no center and no end to the universe, and you think you can do whatever you want… But eventually you find you don’t know what you want, and you start looking for some sort of meaning, some focus in your life: someone to tell you no.”

~ Orhan Pamuk, The Red-Haired Woman

The parallels of father and son relationships were repeatedly underlined in the story. There was the palpable absence of one, leading to Cem unconsciously search for one, or at semblance of one, as any son would do. Master Mahmut provided this father figure to Cem. In their luckless digging, the ground’s refusal to yield water intensified by the heat of the scorching Turkish sun, they forged an unexpected affectionate bond. As they rest each night in their tent, the master would tell stories and impart wisdom to his apprentice – “A father must be fair. A father who isn’t fair will blind his son.

There were also references to two ancient and opposite tragedies of fathers and sons: the aforementioned Oedipus Rex and the classic Persian tale of Rostam and Sohrab from Ferdowski’s Shahnameh, or Book of Kings. These classical tales become the subject of Cem’s obsession. They would also form the main determinants of the plot. These tales also represent the clash of Western and Eastern ideals. In Oedipus, a son, is a headstrong individual who tempts fate, deriding traditions while ushering in a new era. In Rostam, a father, is the epitome of the traditionalists who fervently oppose trends of modernization. They also set the course for the flow of the story.

On the backdrop, Pamuk drew the fundamental changes – geographical and social – that were taking place in his birthplace of Istanbul during the turn of the century. These changes, consequently, extended to Turkey as a whole. Pamuk subtly underlined the political atmosphere whilst underlining the pivot towards and between Western and Eastern philosophies. These were vividly captured, not just through the integration of two classical tales, but also in the landscape that Master Mahmut and his apprentices were helping to alter.

Growth and development are inevitable but on its wake, a lot is sacrificed from open spaces to lush greenery. The rise of technology also led to the obsolescence of many industries. The once indispensable arts and professions became replaceable as time took its natural course. The Red-Haired Woman weaves the story of forgotten people and their lost arts. The antiquated art of well-digging, once a revered profession which required a complex set of skills and an elaborate process, has become dispensable.

“Our land up here, the whole of creation, the pale houses in the distance, the quivering poplars, and the winding train tracks – it was all beautiful, and a part of me knew that the reason I felt this way was that beautiful red-haired woman I had just seen standing in the doorway of her house.”

~ Orhan Pamuk, The Red-Haired Woman

The wells Pamuk dug in a desolate rural site has its own tiny secrets. In these subterranean worlds lurk shame and guilt that are waiting to percolate and burst out into the surface. Moral complexities and crossroads inevitably intersect with these secrets, providing the narrative a different complexion. In a classic case of the past haunting the present, secrets chase the characters all throughout their lives.

Divided in three parts, The Red-Haired Woman seem to be exclusively narrated by Cem. The first part follows Cem and Master Mahmut; it was the easiest part to follow. It concluded in an unfortunate note in which a moral choice has to be made. Whilst this choice shaped the life of the characters, it also resulted into the story falling apart. Beyond the moral bubble, the middle section developed into a theatrical tale reeking of histrionics. The constant repetition of the two classic tales of patricide and filicide eroded the plot, the symbolic references became ephemeral.

Pamuk tried to regain some lost ground in the last section, when the red-haired woman assumed the narration. The change in perspective and voice was a welcome change. Rather than saving the narrative, her part of the narrative further intensified the melodrama, culminating in an unremarkable and platitudinous conclusion.

As the narrative progressed, what was glaring was the lack of growth and maturity in Cem’s voice. The richness of the first section was weighed down by the ensuing melodrama and the absence of growth. A feeling of exhaustion lingered in the language. The language was less than stellar but Pamuk’s symbolism was one of the narrative’s highest achievements. There were points, however, when Pamuk provided far more details on these symbolic references than was necessary, hampering what could have been a wide reader engagement.

“I had wanted to be a writer. But after the events I am about to describe, I studied engineer in 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 father and sons.”

~ Orhan Pamuk, The Red-Haired Woman

The Red-Haired Woman was a rich and multilayered reading experience. Immersing into Turkey’s turbulent political climate and its drastically changing geopolitical landscape, Pamuk weaved a story that also related ageless stories of fathers and sons. The integration of history, mythology, mystery and moral complexities resulted into a distinct story. The philosophical and historical intersections were some of its brightest spots but repetitions, excessive details, and a stagnant character weakened the story’s impact.



Characters (30%) – 10%
Plot (30%) – 15%
Writing (25%) – 13%
Overall Impact (15%) – 7%

The Red-Haired Woman was my second venture into the works of the Noble Prize in Literature winner’s works; my first was Snow which I have read four years ago. The former, unlike the latter, is shorter, one I have heard is uncharacteristic of the usually elaborate Pamuk. Whilst it was a quick read with some rich details, I wasn’t too keen on The Red-Haired Woman. I know the father-son trope but I simply found the novel too bland. It didn’t create much of an impression on me. I enjoyed some details but I found its overall impact a little ephemeral. Will it stop me from reading his other works? No. I hear My Name is Red is a great one.

Book Specs

Author: Orhan Pamuk
Translator: Erin Oklap
Publisher: Vintage International
Publishing Date: March 2018
Number of Pages: 306
Genre: Mystery, Novel


On the outskirts of a town thirty miles from Istanbul, a master well digger and his young apprentice – a boy fleeing the confines of his middle-class home – are hired to find water on a barren plain. As they struggle in the summer heat, excavating without luck meter by meter, they develop a filial bond neither has known before. But when the boy catches the eye of a stunning red-haired woman who seems as fascinated by him as he is by her, the events that ensue change the young man’s life forever and haunt him for the next thirty years. A tale of family and romance, of East and West, of tradition and modernity, The Red-Haired Woman is a beguiling mystery from one of the great storytellers of our time.

About the Author

Ferit Orhan Pamuk was born on June 7, 1952 in Istanbul, Turkey. He grew up in the city in a wealthy upper class family.

He completed his secondary education at Robert College before pursuing architecture at the Istanbul Technical University. He chose architecture as it was related to his real dream of becoming a painter. However, after three years, he stopped pursuing architecture in order to become a full-time writer. In 1976, he graduated from the Institute of Journalism at the University of Istanbul.

Pamuk started writing regularly in 1974. Before being published in 1982 as Cevdet Bey ve Oğulları (Mr. Cevdet and His Sons), his first novel Karanlık ve Işık (Darkness and Light) was co-winner of the 1979 Milliyet Press Novel Contest. Post-publication, it also won the 1983 Orhan Kemal Novel Prize. His earlier works like Sessiz Ev (Silent House) and Beyaz Kale (The White Castle) were also critical successes, earning the upstart novelist several accolades. Popularity, however, took some time to be achieved.

His fifth novel Yeni Hayat (New Life, 1994) stirred quite a sensation in Turkey upon its publication; it became the fastest-selling book in Turkish history. By this time, Pamuk has become a high-profile figure due to his support of the Kurdish political rights. His international reputation started to soar with the publication of Benim Adım Kırmızı (My Name is Red) in 1998. It won the 2003 International Dublin Literary Award. He has also written a slew of non-fiction books, including  İstanbul: Hatıralar ve Şehir (Istanbul: Memories and the City).

At the back of several literary awards and recognition, his 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature award stands tall.