The Red-Haired Woman
by Orhan Pamuk, Hamish Hamilton, 2017, ISBN 9 781926 428826, 253pp
Orhan Pamuk is a Turkish novelist and this is his tenth novel. I have read none of the previous nine even though Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. He is the first Turkish Nobel laureate. I did not know his work but being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature is a pretty good advertisement so I snapped up this book. When one reads a book in translation, and especially a novel, one cannot help but wonder how much of the original is coming through in the translation.
The first part of the book was an easy read; it told its story in easy to read prose. I looked in vain in the book for a credit to the translator. I discovered on-line that he is Ekin Oklap and The Red-Haired Woman is the second Pamuk novel he has translated. I cannot say whether it is a good translation or not: I speak no Turkish and I know no one who does. A review in the Washington Post is quite clear on Ekin Oklap’s qualities as a translator, or rather the lack of them. Its reviewer, one William Giraldi, is not keen on the book either. He says that “Ekin Oklap’s incessant reliance on dead language does great injury to Pamuk’s already damaged tale.”Giraldi is himself a novelist but I cannot find that he speaks Turkish. Other reviewers have been kinder. I do not find Pamuk’s tale “damaged” but on the other hand I do find the middle part of the book somewhat laboured.
This is a story about father-son relationships. The central character is Cem Çelik, the narrator, whose father is a leftwing pharmacist in Istanbul. His left leanings get him in trouble with the authorities and he spends time in prison and therefore away from Cem. Cem, in his late teens, finds a job with a well-digger, Mahmut. Cem develops a bond with Mahmut based partly on the stories they tell one another. On his trips from the well-digging site into the nearby town Cem encounters the red-haired woman of the title. She is twice his age and Cem is infatuated. His infatuation is consummated. But then there is an accident that sees Cem fleeing and returning to Istanbul to go to university.
He becomes a successful property developer and in spite of his success seems to be unfulfilled and unhappy. The second part of the book revolves around Cem’s obsession with two stories. The first is the Greek story about Oedipus which we all know: Oedipus marries his mother and kills his father. The second story is the less well-known Shameneh (The Book of Kings). In this story a father, Rostam, kills his own son Sohrab. The two stories serve as some sort of a metaphor for the circumstances that surround the accident that happens in the first part and the events that follow. I found this part of the book less engaging than the first part. The whole book is not long (at about 250 pages) and I felt that Pamuk was dragging things out in the middle part to stretch the story into a novel of reasonable length.
The last part of the book is narrated by the red-haired woman and its pace matches the first part. Its tale is clearer and the prose ties together the events of the first two parts and provides the twist in the tale. That twist is perhaps not surprising in retrospect. I finished the book wondering if I had been right, with the benefit of hindsight, in buying it. On balance my jury is out: the first hundred pages or so contain some great lyrical prose, those pages are clearly told by a great storyteller. The second hundred pages struggled to keep my attention. The final thirty or so pages got my attention back. But on the whole, I could have probably read something else with greater profit to myself.