Books

book review

An Oedipal tale of a young would-be writer tangles itself in the myth

Ties between fathers and sons are notoriously fraught.

Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s only Nobel laureate in literature, begins his latest novel with epigraphs that announce both patricide and filicide.

“The Red-Haired Woman’’ opens with quotations describing Oedipus, literature’s most famous patricide, from the most popular source, “Oedipus the King’’ by Sophocles, and from “The Birth of Tragedy’’ by Friedrich Nietzsche, one of many modern figures, including Jean Cocteau, Sigmund Freud, and Igor Stravinsky, who were inspired by the tragedy.

Advertisement

The filicide is hinted at in a quotation from “Shahnameh,’’ Ferdowsi’s sprawling 10th-century Persian epic in which, unaware that they are father and son, Rostam and Sohrab meet on the field of battle, where Rostum slays Sohrab.

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Thus, the first paragraph of the novel invites readers to be “lured by the enigma of fathers and sons.” But the storybegins in 1986 without a paternal presence. Cem Celik’s father has vanished after leftist activities got him into trouble with the police. The teenager, an aspiring writer who is cramming for the entrance exam to the university, takes a summer job as an apprentice to a master well digger. Camping out on a rural property at some distance from Istanbul, he assists in the arduous task of tapping a water supply deep beneath the arid earth. Master Mahmut, whom Cem comes to consider a surrogate father, instructs him in the intricacies of digging a well while also offering lessons in living.

During supply runs to a nearby town, Cem is attracted to a red-haired woman who performs in a traveling tent troupe that calls itself the Theater of Morality Tales. The mysterious woman provides Cem with free admission to a show that includes a reenactment of the story of Rostam and Sohrab. She also provides him with his sexual initiation. However, something dramatic occurs, something that Cem will later call “a black stain on my soul” and that will leave him wracked by “immeasurable guilt.” Cem abruptly flees the site of the unfinished well and returns to Istanbul.

As founder of a company he calls Sohrab, Cem will eventually become a wealthy but childless real-estate developer, able to indulge his lifelong fascination with the stories of both Oedipus and Rostam by traveling to museums and libraries to study representations of them. “Whenever I read about Rostam and Sohrab,” he reports, “I felt as if I were reliving my own memories.” Gülcihan, the woman with the red hair created by the novelist with a heavy hand, observes that: “The things you hear in old myths and folktales end up happening in real life.” Eventually, not surprisingly, the stories of both Oedipus and Rostam and Sohrab will be reenacted within Pamuk’s novel.

Many of Pamuk’s works, including “My Name Is Red,’’ “Snow,’’ and “The Black Book,’’ contain self-conscious, postmodern twists in which the tale reflects back on itself. This one is packed with so many allusions to patricide and filicide that the plot ends up overdetermined. Perhaps the point is that human freedom is an illusion, that by trying to elude fate we only end up hastening its arrival. But Pamuk has also built a structure whose scaffolding has not been removed. It is a well site that, for all the strenuous digging, comes up dry.

Advertisement

Narrated by a middle-aged Cem reflecting on the passions and blunders of his youth, the opening section is the most evocative part of the novel. The rest, delivered by another narrator, is commentary. In a metafictional moment at the very end of the book, Gülcihan advises that if someone were to write a novel about everything that went before: “It should be as credible as a true story, and as familiar as a myth.” The myths of violent encounters between fathers and sons that are the subtext for “The Red-Haired Woman’’ are familiar and credible. But the story contrived to give fresh life to those myths creaks.

THE RED-HAIRED WOMAN

By Orhan Pamuk

Translated from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap

Alfred A. Knopf, 253 pp., $26.95

Steven G. Kellman is the author of “Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth’’ and “The Translingual Imagination.’’