“Like all other Istanbul writers with one eye always on the West, I
sometimes suffer in confusion,” Orhan Pamuk admits in his memoir,
Istanbul: Memories and the
City
,”
reissued this month. The confusion has its origins in the
nineteen-twenties, Pamuk explains, a decade when the Ottoman Empire
fell, the Republic of Turkey was born, and President Mustafa Kemal
Atatürk modernized the country by fiat. As a result of Atatürk’s
reforms, the state became secular; the alphabet Latinized; the calendar
Gregorian; the fez illegal. In this race to leave behind the Ottoman
past and enter a Western future, Turkish élites from this period, in
Pamuk’s view, committed an error that would haunt future generations:
“They did not strive to create an Istanbul culture that would be an
organic combination of East and West,” as he put it in a Paris Review interview,
in 2005. “They just put Eastern and Western things together.”

Pamuk has long given voice to anxieties about the modernization and
Westernization of Turkey in his fiction. His new novel, “The Red-Haired
Woman
,”
translated by Ekin Oklap, brings together what Pamuk considers the
crowning myths of the East and West: Ferdowsi’s Persian epic, the
“Shahnameh,” and Sophocles’ tragedy “Oedipus the King.” The two are
inverses of each other. In “Oedipus,” the son murders his father; in one
of the stories of the “Shahnameh,” the father murders his son. But
Pamuk, in “The Red-Haired Woman,” seems preoccupied with another father,
who looms over the book though goes unnamed: Atatürk, whose name
literally translates as “father of the Turks.” This novel takes stock of
Atatürk’s reforms nearly a century after their passage—and, in a moment
when Turkey is drifting away from his secular ideals, the book portrays a country’s increasingly
ambivalent relationship to its political father.

To tell this story, Pamuk follows the path of a single life in the
aftermath of Turkey’s 1980 military coup. “The Red-Haired Woman”
chronicles the fate of Cem Çelik, who is a teen-ager living in Istanbul
when the novel begins. His own father was jailed after the coup for his
politics, but Cem’s gaze during this time is purely inward. “I had
wanted to become a writer,” he says, in the novel’s first line. Cem is
working in a bookstore and living with his mother—his father is not
really in the picture, even after he is released from prison—when he
stumbles upon a précis of “Oedipus the King” in an anthology of Freud’s
writings. “Oedipus” changes his life, which soon resembles the stuff of
drama. Needing to come up with money for cram school, he finds
better-paying, back-breaking work in the country’s periphery, where he
assists a well digger by day. By night he strolls through the town of
Öngören, and it’s there that he glimpses the red-haired woman of the
novel’s title. She is a member of a travelling theatre troupe, and Cem
attends their morality plays against the wishes of his boss, whom he has
otherwise grown close to. After an accident at the well, Cem believes
his carelessness has led to the death of the well digger, and he fears
that he will be held responsible. Wracked by indecision about whether to
flee the scene or stay, he wrests the following bit of wisdom from
“Oedipus”: “Having set out trying to disprove a story and a prophecy,
Oedipus ended up killing his own father . . . So it was that I had come to
understand that if I wanted to live a ‘normal,’ ordinary life like
everyone else, I had to do the opposite of what Oedipus did and act as
if nothing bad had happened.”

The novel proceeds in this manner—faithfully, if unsubtly, nodding to
its two civilizational myths with each successive plot development. By
middle age, Cem has not become a writer, but he has founded a
construction company—named after the fallen son in the “Shahnameh,”
Sohrab. He has married his college girlfriend, and become wealthy. But
guilt continues to consume him. He comes to see his life as a series of
clues that he must interpret, each forcing him to reckon with the truth
about the father who abandoned him, the father figure he may have
killed, and the father he may yet become.

One evening, he attends a party in Tehran, notionally on business, and
he notices a miniature depicting a scene from the “Shahnameh” on the
wall. It shows the moment when Rostam, the father, cradles Sohrab, the
son he has just murdered. A bit drunk, Cem begins to wonder what Turkey
might be like today had it looked East during its quest to modernize.
“In Turkey, we’d forgotten all about Iran as soon as we’d turned toward
the West,” he laments. “Iranians were not like us Turks who had become
so Westernized that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths. They would
never forget—especially not their poets.” With these lines, Pamuk seems
to chide generations of cosmopolitan Turks who swept aside the country’s
Ottoman detritus in order to usher in a European modernity. In the
memoir, Pamuk finds the perfect metaphor for this process: the tendency
for wooden Ottoman-era mansions, or yalıs, to spontaneously burst into
flames along the Bosphorus. These burning mansions, for Pamuk’s
generation, symbolized “the sudden destruction of the last traces of a
great culture and a great civilization we were unfit or unprepared to
inherit, in our frenzy to turn Istanbul into a pale, poor, second-class
imitation of a western city.”

Over the course of Cem’s life, the population of Istanbul swells—and his
interest in stories of patricide and filicide becomes an obsession. His
marriage has yielded no children, and so he has time to trace the
afterlives of Sophocles and Ferdowsi’s work across the globe in the
paintings of Gustave
Moreau
, the
cinema of Pier Paolo Pasolini, and
manuscripts of the
Shahnameh.” “If I
kept exploring this boundless sea of stories,” he tells himself, “I
might eventually solve the riddle of my own life and finally land on
peaceful shores.” Like many of Pamuk’s characters, Cem cannot
distinguish art from life.

In reënacting the fates that befell the tragic heroes of Sophocles and
Ferdowsi, “The Red-Haired Woman” is dominated by two extreme moods: lull
and bombshell. The novel assumes a steadier pace in its final chapters.
A new character, Serhat, appears. He is a devout Muslim, and he spends
his time writing religious poetry in Öngören, where he was born, and
where Cem’s construction company has begun to develop land. Serhat meets
Cem after his company gives a presentation in the town and takes an
instant dislike to him; Cem comes off as a Westernizer from Istanbul
with a poor grasp of the country’s political dynamics. “I won’t be
caught in false dichotomies like left and right, godly or modern,”
Serhat barks at Cem, who has spent his life reducing entire
civilizations to old stories. Serhat is a rare character type in Pamuk’s
fiction: the young conservative. He is an emblem of Turkey’s
contemporary pivot rightward, a nationalist likely to support the
policies of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who earlier this year seized
incredible Presidential powers in a referendum marred by allegations of
voter
fraud
.
Cast aside, in the nineteen-twenties, by Atatürk, the religious,
neo-Ottoman
vision
for Turkey that Erdoğan espouses—which is supported not only by radicals
like Serhat but by pious inhabitants of the Turkish countryside as
well—is ascendant. When Serhat shows up, the novel’s animating idea
finally becomes clear. “The Red-Haired Woman” drapes Turkey’s political
situation in the language of myth, suggesting that the ancient pairs of
Oedipus and Laius and Sohrab and Rostam may have company in the present.
Who is Erdoğan, after all, but Atatürk’s son?

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