Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 12, 2018

The Red-Haired Woman (2016), by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Ekin Oklap

There is always more to Orhan Pamuk than the words on the page, and The Red-Haired Woman is no exception.  Nominated for the EBRD Prize for Translation,  at 250-odd pages it is shorter than his recent novels but equally thought-provoking.  Turkish politics isn’t often on my radar, but even I have noted with some dismay that recent elections have seen Turkey abandon some key aspects of democracy in favour of more authoritarian conservative rule.  The Red-Haired Woman uses a provocative study of father-son relationships to show how sons (symbolising democracy in Turkey) can only learn to be themselves, when they resist the power of their fathers (symbolising autocratic government).

Ancient story-telling underpins the novel.  There is the Persian epic, the Shahnameh which features Rostam and Sohrab, the father killing the child, and then there is (thanks to Freud) the more famous  Oedipus of Sophocles, the son killing the father.  The central character, Cem, who narrates most of the novel, becomes obsessed by these stories because of events in his own life, and in adulthood he trawls the great art museums of the world looking for works of art which depict these immortal stories.

Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation, what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life. (p.156)

Ivan the Terrible and His Son 1581 (Ilya Repin, 1885) (Wikipedia)

Cem is disappointed to find that depictions of Oedipus don’t focus on the moment when he kills his father but instead on when he solved the riddle of the Sphinx, as in Oedipus and the Sphinx painted by Ingres and also by Gustave Moreau.  But in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery, he is utterly absorbed by a 19th century painting by the Russian artist Ilya Repin, depicting the moment when Ivan the Terrible kills his son in ways familiar to him from ancient Persian representations of Rostam and Sohrab.

The way the father – and king – having killed his son in a moment of blind fury, now clasped the bloodied body, horror and remorse etched on his face; the way the son – and prince – lay supine in his father’s arms: these were all familiar features.  This murderous father was the merciless czar Ivan IV, founder of the Russian state, subject of Eisenstein’s film Ivan the Terrible, and a favourite of Stalin’s.  The brutality and remorse emanating from the painting, its stark simplicity, and its single-mindedness were uncannily reminiscent of the ruthless authority of the state.

I felt that same intimately familiar and intimidating fear of authority as I looked up at Moscow’s dark starless sky that evening.  Ivan the Terrible seemed both regretful of what he’d done and also full of boundless love and tenderness toward his son.  (p.156)

I think that this otherwise irrelevant reference to Stalin is a clear warning about the dangers of Turkey’s internal politics, following on from just a few pages before this, when Pamuk refers to the ways in which Prince Oedipus and Sohrab both collude in treason.

Their search for lost fathers had cast both Oedipus and Sohrab far from the cities and lands to which they belonged, into places where, vulnerable to exploitation by their countries’ foes, they ended up traitors.  In both stories, loyalty to family, to king, to father, and to dynasty is placed above loyalty to nation, and the protagonists’ treasonous predicaments are never emphasised.   Still, in seeking out their  respective fathers, Prince Oedipus and Sohrab both ultimately collaborate with the enemies of their own people.  (p.153)

In the veiled voice of his character Cem, Pamuk seems to be suggesting that by relinquishing power to an authoritarian paternalistic government – because it fears the disintegration of the Middle East around them – the Turkish electorate is colluding in actions that will ultimately damage the nation:

It seems we would all like a strong-decisive father telling us what to do and what not to do.  Is it because it is so difficult to distinguish what we should and shouldn’t do, what is moral and right from what is sinful and wrong?  Or is it because we constantly need to be reassured that we are innocent and have not sinned?  Is the need for a father always there, or do we feel it only when we are confused, or anguished, when our world is falling apart? (p.147)

Of course The Red-Haired Woman can also be read – without any of these allegorical meanings – as an intriguing mystery about fathers and sons (including a very surprising twist at the end!)  Cem develops a relationship with a well-digger as a substitute for an absent Left-wing father who was captured and tortured by the authorities but also subsequently chose to abandon his family.  When Cem’s marriage turns out to be childless, he works obsessively in a business that he recognises as a substitute for the child he can never have.  He even names it Sohrab. (This business is a construction company, BTW, which gives Pamuk the opportunity to explore other issues he’s written about before: urban overdevelopment, consumerism, the destruction of old communities and the ever-present problem of modernity in the Middle East.)  The red-haired woman of the title is a mysterious presence in his life after he has a brief liaison with her as a teenager, and a crime also haunts the novel  almost right to the end.  But readers who tackle the novel just at plot and character level will find, I think, occasional jarring sequences that seem out of place unless seen as part of the allegory that brings the structure of the novel together.

Stu from Winston’s Dad has also reviewed this novel. 

Author: Orhan Pamuk
Title: The Red-Haired Woman (Kırmızı Saçlı Kadın)
Translated from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Random House Australia), 2017, first published 2016
ISBN: 9781926428826
Source: Personal library, purchased from Ulysses Bookshop, $32.99

Available from Fishpond: The Red-Haired Woman


  1. […] The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk (translated by Ekin Oklap from Turkey, Faber & Faber), Update 12/2/18, see my review […]


  2. It is always a trap to want a father figure for a leader and yet it is so common. People love a strongman. Australian media have always criticised Prime Ministers for not controlling Parliament, as though democracy wasn’t the election of MPs to make laws on behalf of the people. And the first action of the strongman is to suppress dissent. Political commentator Bernard Keane writes of the boiling frog effect – western governments are all removing our freedoms one by one just slowly enough that we won’t protest. Turkey is just a little ahead of us in the process, that’s all. Soon coded protest through fiction will be all that we have.


    • Ah, now you’ve reminded me of something, somewhere in the novel, that refers to an effect like that, was it Keane, or someone else, I wonder if I can find it again….


    • No, I can’t find it, maybe it’s in something else I’m reading. But he does mention (p168) a book called Oriental Despotism which argues that certain kinds of developing countries can only build the infrastructure they need ‘under strictly authoritarian regimes, whose rules brook no resistance or rebellion.’ Yes, China…
      But also the USSR. The Allies would never have won WW2 if Stalin hadn’t been able to demand – and get – rapid industrialisation and rearmament and a massive force of soldiers…


  3. I haven’t read anything by Pamuk but this one appeals to me. I’m glad you mentioned the allegorical nature of the book otherwise I may have missed it.


    • Hi Jonathan, it took a while for the penny to drop. I was reading along, quite enjoying it, but thinking now and again, why is this character Cem explaining this, or pontificating about that, and then *doh* it dawned on me what Pamuk was doing. And from then on, almost every page seemed to click into place.
      But I have to say that not many reviewers have picked upon this, so maybe I am leading you up the garden path!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The Red-Haired Woman has been on my wishlist since it came out and now you (and Stu) have nudged me closer. I’ve read so many of his books – not all but close. Unfortunately, I have a couple urgent TBRs calling my name but you will see another review shortly – (early March?)


    • Yay, glad to have enticed you! *blush* I have to admit I haven’t read his last one, A Strangeness in My Mind yet, I must get on with that…


      • I’ve not read A Strangeness in My Mind yet, either. That one is pretty long and I’ve kept so much on my plate (er – screen and ears) that when Red-Haired Woman came out I want “HUH??? and Oh-oh!) LOL –


  5. You are not alone!


  6. Yes sometimes he like Kadare is very good at highlighting the problems of today in a story of the past


    • And often you don’t even realise he’s doing it, which is perhaps how he gets it past the censors?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes was think about Kadare work the pyramid that did that as well


        • Yes, and Kadare’s The Siege, I loved that book!


  7. […] I spent this entire section rolling my eyes at this tired male fantasy trope. How many books do we need about a young man losing his virginity to an older, experienced and alluring mystery woman? I only kept going because of Lisa’s positive review. […]


  8. I found your review on Brona’s page. I absolutely love everything by Orhan Pamuk and also liked this one. Your review is fantastic. If you would like to read mine (not half as great), it’s here</a.


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