My first encounter with Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel-Prize winning author, came as a wonderful surprise. His novels are uniformly interesting, with well-drawn characters. The stories have the right amount of detail. The Red-Haired Woman is his twelfth novel, but there may be more not yet translated.
This novel is loosely drawn on Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. This story begins with the birth of Oedipus and a seer who predicts the child will slay his father and marry his mother. A servant is ordered to kill the child, but he leaves it with a family he trusts. When the child becomes a man, he is told of the prediction. Believing he wanted to spare his adopted family, he travels to Thebes. On the way, a rider knocks him over, a fight ensues, and the King of Thebes is killed. Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx, and he becomes king and marries Queen Jocasta, who is his mother. A dreadful plague attacks Thebes, and the seer says it is punishment for the murder of the king. Oedipus orders an all-out effort to find the murderer and bring him to justice.
Cem is a young man who aspires to be a poet, but his father disappears and the family finds itself on the brink of poverty. He first works at a book store.
Pamuk spins an interesting tale with equally interesting characters. Orhan writes, “I spent the summer of 1985 helping out at a bookstore called Deniz on the main shopping street Beşiktaş. My job consisted of chasing would-be thieves, most of whom were students. Every now and then, Mr. Deniz would drive with me to Çağaloğlu to replenish his stock. The boss became fond of me: he noticed how I remembered all the authors’ and publishers’ names, and he let me borrow his books to read at home. I read a lot that summer: children’s books, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, poetry books, books about dreams. One passage in the latter book would change my life forever” (60). With Deniz’s urging, he begins to consider writing as a career.
Desperate for money, he begins to study engineering and geology. He accepts a summer job as apprentice to Mr. Mahmut, a well-digger, where he meets the Red-Haired woman and promptly falls in love. Pamuk writes, as “I reached the open doorway, two more figures emerged: first, a man, maybe five or six years older than I was, and then a tall, red-haired woman who might have been his elder sister. There was something unusual, and very alluring, about this woman. Maybe the lady in jeans was the mother of this red-haired woman and her little brother” (22).
Mr. Mahmut told Cem a vast array of stories, and these captured the imagination of the young boy. Pamuk writes, “Many years later, when I grasped the immeasurable effect that Master Mahmut’s stories had over the course of my life, I started reading anything I could find about their origins” (37). His business flourishes, and he becomes vastly wealth. He and his wife travel the world looking for copies of ancient documents.
Orhan Pamuk’s twelfth novel in English, The Red-Haired Lady is as interesting a tale as any reader could want. He certainly is well-deserving of his 2006 Nobel Prize. I have no idea how many other novels he may have ahead of him or to be translated, but I will follow this important world literature treasure. 5 stars