On the outskirts of a town thirty miles from Istanbul, a well digger and his young apprentice—a boy fleeing the confines of his middle class home—are hired to find water on a barren plain. As they struggle in the summer heat, excavating without luck meter by meter, they develop a filial bond neither has known before. But when the boy catches the eye of a stunning red-haired woman who seems as fascinated by him as he is by her, the events that ensue change the young man’s life forever and haunt him for the next thirty years. A tale of family and romance, of youth and old age, of tradition and modernity, The Red-Haired Woman is a beguiling mystery from one of the great storytellers of our time.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I had wanted to be a writer. But after the events I am about to describe, I studied engineering geology and became a building contractor. Even so, readers shouldn’t conclude from my telling the story now that it is over, that I’ve put it all behind me. The more I remember, the deeper I fall into it. Perhaps you, too, will follow, lured by the enigma of fathers and sons.
In 1984, we lived in a small apartment deep in Beşiktaş, near the nineteenth-century Ottoman Ihlamur Palace. My father had a little pharmacy called Hayat, meaning “Life.” Once a week, it stayed open all night, and my father took the late shift. On those evenings, I’d bring him his dinner. I liked to spend time there, breathing in the medicinal smells while my father, a tall, slim, handsome figure, had his meal by the cash register. Almost thirty years have passed, but even at forty-five I still love the smell of those old pharmacies lined with wooden drawers and cupboards.
The Life Pharmacy wasn’t particularly busy. My father would while away the nights with one of those small portable television sets so popular back then. Sometimes his leftist friends would stop by, and I would arrive to find them talking in low tones. They always changed the subject at the sight of me, remarking how I was just as handsome and charming as he was, asking what year was I in, whether I liked school, what I wanted to be when I grew up.
My father was obviously uncomfortable when I ran into his political friends, so I never stayed too long when they dropped by. At the first chance, I’d take his empty dinner box and walk back home under the plane trees and the pale streetlights. I learned never to tell my mother about seeing Father’s leftist friends at the shop. That would only get her angry at the lot of them and worried that my father might be getting into trouble and about to disappear once again.
But my parents’ quarrels were not all about politics. They used to go through long periods when they barely said a word to each other. Perhaps they didn’t love each other. I suspected that my father was attracted to other women, and that many other women were attracted to him. Sometimes my mother hinted openly at the existence of a mistress, so that even I understood. My parents’ squabbles were so upsetting that I willed myself not to remember or think about them.
It was an ordinary autumn evening the last time I brought my father his dinner at the pharmacy. I had just started high school. I found him watching the news on TV. While he ate at the counter, I served a customer who needed aspirin, and another who bought vitamin-C tablets and antibiotics. I put the money in the old-fashioned till, whose drawer shut with a pleasant tinkling sound. After he’d eaten, on the way out, I took one last glance back at my father; he smiled and waved at me, standing in the doorway.
He never came home the next morning. My mother told me when I got back from school that afternoon, her eyes still puffy from crying. Had my father been picked up at the pharmacy and taken to the Political Affairs Bureau? They’d have tortured him there with bastinado and electric shocks. It wouldn’t have been the first time.
Years ago, soldiers had first come for him the night after the military coup. My mother was devastated. She told me that my father was a hero, that I should be proud of him; and until his release, she took over the night shifts, together with his assistant Macit. Sometimes I’d wear Macit’s white coat myself—though at the time I was of course planning to be a scientist when I grew up, as my father had wanted, not some pharmacist’s assistant.
When, however, my father again disappeared seven or eight years after that, it was different. Upon his return, after almost two years, my mother seemed not to care that he had been taken away, interrogated, and tortured. She was furious at him. “What did he expect?” she said.
So, too, after my father’s final disappearance, my mother seemed resigned, made no mention of Macit, or of what was to become of the pharmacy. That’s what made me think that my father didn’t always disappear for the same reason. But what is this thing we call thinking, anyway?
By then I’d already learned that thoughts sometimes come to us in words, and sometimes in images. There were some thoughts—such as a memory of running under the pouring rain, and how it felt—that I couldn’t even begin to put into words . . . Yet their image was clear in my mind. And there were other things that I could describe in words but were otherwise impossible to visualize: black light, my mother’s death, infinity.
Perhaps I was still a child, and so able to dispel unwanted thoughts. But sometimes it was the other way around, and I would find myself with an image or a word that I could not get out of my head.
My father didn’t contact us for a long time. There were moments when I couldn’t remember what he looked like. It felt as if the lights had gone out and everything around me had vanished. One night, I walked alone toward the Ihlamur Palace. The Life Pharmacy was bolted shut with a heavy black padlock, as if closed forever. A mist drifted out from the gardens of the palace.
Sometime later, my mother told me that neither my father’s money nor the pharmacy was enough for us to live on. I myself had no expenses other than movie tickets, kebab sandwiches, and comic books. I used to walk to Kabataş High School and back. I had friends who trafficked in used comic books for sale or loan. But I didn’t want to spend my weekends as they did, waiting patiently for customers in the backstreets and by the back doors of cinemas in Beşiktaş.
I spent the summer of 1985 helping out at a bookstore called Deniz on the main shopping street of Beşiktaş. My job consisted mainly of chasing off 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 grew 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, historical novels about the adventures of Ottoman warriors, and a book about dreams. One passage in this latter book would change my life forever.
When Mr. Deniz’s writer friends came by the shop, the boss started introducing me as an aspiring writer. By then I had started harboring this dream and foolishly confessed it to him in an unguarded moment. Under his influence, I soon began to take it seriously.
Reading Group Guide
The discussion questions and suggested reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The Red-Haired Woman, the latest novel by Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk.
1. At the start of the story, we are told that Cem’s father has disappeared, but that it is not the first time he has disappeared and he “didn’t always disappear for the same reason” (5). What are the reasons for his disappearances and how does his absence affect young Cem? Does Cem ever come to terms with his father’s disappearance?
2. The Red-Haired Woman is said to be a novel in the tradition of the conte philosophique, or philosophical tale. How does the novel fit in with this genre and what are some of the philosophical and social ideas and arguments the novel puts forth?
3. Evaluate Cem’s relationship with Master Mahmut. Would you characterize it as a father-son relationship? Why or why not? How does it differ from Cem’s relationship with his own father?
4. A motif of storytelling runs through the novel. Which of the characters are storytellers, and what kinds of stories do they share? Do their stories have anything in common? What seems to be the role or purpose of storytelling?
5. When Cem shares his version of the story of Oedipus with Master Mahmut, Mahmut replies, “Nobody can escape their fate” (46). Do you agree with him? Why or why not? Does the story ultimately support or overturn the notion of fate? How much do the characters seem to be driven by forces beyond their control and how much seems to be the result of their own actions and free will?
6. When does Cem believe he is “most completely [him]self” (63)? How does he believe a father’s presence affects this? Do you agree with him?
7. The Red-Haired Woman tells Cem that he should simply find a new father. “We all have many fathers in this country” (86). What does she mean? Who or what are some of the other father figures to which she refers?
8. Why does Cem ultimately abandon the dig and return home? How does his decision affect him in the years ahead? What does Cem decide is “the best thing to do” (117)? Do you agree with him?
9. Through detailed descriptions of the landscape, the author provides a snapshot of a rapidly changing world. Does the book ultimately offer a statement about progress and modernization versus tradition? Is the modernization of Turkish culture as represented in the book primarily positive? What has changed? What, if anything, seems to remain the same despite modernization?
10. In chapter 28, Cem notices the major difference between the story of Oedipus from the West and the story of Rostam and Sohrab from the East. What is this difference and why might it be notable?
11. After visiting with Mrs. Fikriye the librarian, Cem realizes a new commonality between Oedipus and Sohrab. What is it and how does it affect Cem’s understanding of the events of his own past? What do both stories say about loyalty?
12. Why does Ayşe call in a panic when she realizes that Cem has attended the Sohrab meeting even though he said he would not? What happens to Cem, and who is responsible? Does the book seem to suggest whether this outcome could have been avoided? If so, how?
13. When Gülcihan ends up at the same table as another woman with red hair who challenges the authenticity of her appearance, how does she respond? What does she see as the main difference between her and the other woman? How does this new knowledge contribute to the book’s more expansive dialogues about identity, desire, choice, and fate?
14. Evaluate the corresponding themes of innocence and guilt. Where do these themes surface in the book? Is it easy to determine which of the characters in the book are innocent and which are guilty? Why or why not? Does the book ever answer the question of how one’s innocence or guilt is determined? Why does Cem come to the conclusion that Oedipus and Rostam may be considered innocent, for instance? Through its exploration of these two overlapping themes, what view of morality does the author ultimately offer?
15. Gülcihan wishes to talk to Ayşe to tell her “as women, we were not responsible for what happened, for it had all been dictated by myth and history” (246). What does she mean by this? Do you agree with her? Why or why not? Are the Red-Haired Woman and Ayşe truly innocent, or are they somehow complicit or even responsible for what has happened?