May 26, 2020
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Oedipus Backwards

Thin on patient detail and emotional heft, Pamuk’s hero rushes from scene to scene. Major questions are asked, but they don’t illuminate our readerly selves.

Oedipus Backwards
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Oedipus Backwards
The Red-Haired Woman
By Orhan Pamuk
Penguin Random House | Pages: 253 | Rs: 599

“A father is a doting, charismatic figure who will until his dying day accept and watch over the child he sires. He is the origin and the centre of the universe. When you believe that you have a father, you are at peace when you can’t see him, because you know that he is always there, ready to love and protect you.”

Ali, the protagonist, loves telling stories, but we do not hear them first-hand. We’re just told he is good at it. Pamuk writes as if it were not his job to paint the scene for us.

By the time you get to this part of the book, somewhere near the end, and rea­lise that Orhan Pamuk’s The Red-Haired Woman is about fatherhood, it is possible that you might have already lost int­erest. The first half seems hastily written, disagreeably rushed and badly planned. This is where we meet young Akin Celik, who is 15 or so. His father, who owned a chemist’s shop in Istanbul, has been taken away for his political beliefs; his mother is a shadowy figure who does not seem to matter. Akin apprentices himself to a well-digger and falls in love with the red-haired woman of the title. She is an actress and is glimpsed, in the grand and hoary tradition of such encounters, fleetingly. Never mind. It isn’t the what, it’s the how, as we know. Only, this evocation of love and/or list is so listless that we can hardly believe it is an adolescent who wants and yearns. There is nothing of the angst and the edge of those moments; we must take it on faith. Nor is Akin’s relationship with Ali the well-digger, a surrogate father, traced with care.

Ali loves telling stories, but we do not hear them first-hand. We are told he is good at it, which is not the same thing: “With as few quick words, he would likewise paint the scene of a well-digger overcome by a gas-leak....” Pamuk writes as if it were not his job to paint the scene for us. But then—and I have no idea if it was translator Ekin Oklap or Pamuk—we also have a miraculous moon that neither waxes nor wanes: “Around that time the sun would begin to set.... A pinkish full moon would app­ear before nightfall. I could hear the rustling around the tent and dogs barking in the distance....” How long can a moon stay full? Long enough to merit the historic tense?

The obsessive young Akin goes to a run-down travelling show where the red-haired woman is a performer. He sees his loved one, he drinks a glass of raki, and then we are told, “...the red-haired woman was trying to catch my eye, which made my head spin”. I would have thought an obsessed young man would be unable to take his eyes off the object of his interest; instead, he seems to be looking away and she has to try to catch his eye?

Akin sleeps with her that very night and then there’s a terrible accident at the site and he runs away, thinking he may have killed his surrogate father. In a series of breath-taking forward leaps, he leaves, goes to college, falls in love, gets married, has no children (you can guess where this is leading), builds a successful company and starts getting interested in the which a father, Rustom, kills his son Sohrab. This is the mirror image of the Oedipal story and it is in this that Pamuk’s int­erest really lies. What would he make of Yayati and Puru? Or of Hiran­ya­kashipu and Prahlad?

You will not need a degree in literature to tell what happens next. Another hoary tradition of fiction has it that if a man sleeps with a woman once and leaves her and has no children, that one time is enough for the abandoned woman to get pregnant and give birth to the missing son. This might have once been seen as irony; now it is a bit ho-hum. This is when the questions begin. What makes a father? What makes a son? How is the connection forged and how does a father help his son attain the status of manhood? How does a man manage when his father is missing?

No harm asking these questions. They are valuable ones even without conclusive ans­wers. We do not go to fiction for answers, but to read about ourselves, to hold up a mirror and catch a fleeting glimpse of the self. This is why those old myths still hold; because they’re still about us. But The Red-Haired Woman is so busy getting things done, moving Akin on from here to there, from scene to scene, that we see nothing in this mirror. This is Pamuk Lite.

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