The Red-Haired Woman

By Orhan Pamuk
Knopf. 272 pp. $26.95.

Reviewed by Mike Fischer

nolead ends On its surface, Orhan Pamuk's latest - a fable masquerading as a novel titled The Red-Haired Woman - is an exploration of "the enigma of fathers and sons," that always-tangled love-hate relationship that Freud, in an essay referred to here, viewed as murderous.

But the surface never tells true in Pamuk, a point driven home (and down) by the ostensible profession of the novel's most important father figure: a 43-year-old well-digger named Mahmut.

Looking back three decades later, a narrator calling himself Cem remembers the mid-1980s summer he spent as Mahmut's 16-year-old apprentice, looking for water in a small town later swallowed by Istanbul.

True to Pamuk's trademark doubling, we learn that Mahmut is not only the same age as Cem's father, but even resembles him. Cem's biological father was a revolutionary who had been jailed and tortured multiple times. He's also a philanderer, genial but largely indifferent toward his son.

Conversely, Mahmut is an irascible traditionalist who takes a significant interest in Cem, with whom he spends nights narrating fairy tales and invoking the Quran. In an age of newfangled ideas, he takes an old-fashioned approach to digging for water: using a pick, shovel, bucket, and windlass as one of "the last practitioners of an art that had existed for thousands of years."

Enter Gulcihan, the 33-year-old red-haired woman of Pamuk's title. An actor in a traveling circus troupe, she has pitched her tent in the town where Mahmut is digging. Cem is instantly smitten by her "mysterious, melancholy eyes and perfect lips." "Her every move was graceful and irresistibly attractive," Cem tells us - before he has even met her.

Pamuk's men tend to fall like this for idealized women who never fully come alive. Although Gulcihan later narrates her own section of this novel, she's no exception. She's more plot device than person, but what a plot device: Distracted and tired from a tryst with her, Cem drops a loaded bucket onto well-digging Mahmut. Fearing he's killed his boss, he flees the scene.

So ends Part I. What ensues is "immeasurable guilt" and a much-less-satisfying Part II, during which we're whisked through three decades chronicling Cem's school years, marriage, and growing success as a contractor who leverages his engineering degree into a small fortune.

In his spare time, he ruminates on two myths, both awkwardly sutured to the narrative and given considerable airtime: the Oedipus story (in which a son inadvertently kills his father) and the Persian story of Rostam and Sohrab (in which a father inadvertently kills his son).

Cem's ritual slaying of his surrogate father isn't the only such father-son violence in this novel, which features plot twists offering fatalistic, heavy-handed support to Gulcihan's insistence that we not "dismiss anything in life as mere coincidence."

More interesting, Pamuk uses his study of fathers and sons to play variations on one of his great themes, best explored in Red (2001) and Snow (2004): the conflict between tradition and modernity that remains central to Turkish life.

Is one better off with a father like Cem's biological parent, who champions individual liberty but proves incapable of giving his son the love and direction Cem needs? Or does one fare better with a parent like Mahmut, an authoritarian who can be moody and even tyrannical while nevertheless forging strong personal bonds with his protégé?

The novel's periodic references to Turkish politics leave no doubt that Turkey's slide toward dictatorship under Recep Tayyip Erdogan's nominally democratic regime is very much on Pamuk's mind when posing such questions.

So is his long-standing love affair with an older Istanbul, viewed here as a paradise being paved in ways that trigger the sort of lament Pamuk gives us in Istanbul - Memories and the City (2005) and the lovely, underrated A Strangeness in My Mind (2015).

The old ways and old homes, we're told here, are all gone. In Pamuk's world, one rarely gets to go home again to the father's house.

This review originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.