The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk

As a long time fan of Orhan Pamuk’s writing I was thrilled that my first book in the Foyles’ ‘A Year of Books’ was Pamuk’s latest The Red-Haired Woman. I was first introduced to Pamuk with Snow which I read just before travelling to Turkey for a month in 2006. While I was in Turkey, just before the elections in 2006, I read Istanbul: Memories and the City and I was captured. Since then I have read each of the books as they have come out and I’ve recently bought the older books with the intention of reading them over the winter season. I have visited Istanbul a couple of times and he captures its essence for me; when I read him, I am there.

The Red-Haired Woman was no different. Pamuk takes me back each time, even though it’s not necessarily a Turkey, or Istanbul, that I know, I can feel it all around me. This book, like Pamuk’s last was translated by Ekin Oklap and is a slim volume at only 273 pages – unlike his last few novels which have been significantly larger.

I enjoyed this novel as I enjoy Pamuk but I would have to admit it does not reach the heights of some of his other work. For me Istanbul is sublime while the sadness of The Museum of Innocence and The Silent House are palpable. The Red-Haired Woman is well crafted but the characterisation was not as vivid and so the characters did not stay with me far beyond the book the way the narrator of The Museum of Innocence did. Setting is well established yet its transience both in the book, and in modern Turkey, did not compel me the way that Istanbul did. Yet it was an enjoyable story that caused me to reflect on the mythology and philosophy being explored. It’s a thoughtful book and captures the sense of Turkish politics and history being just out of reach – hard to understand; difficult to describe. It is for the narrator as it is for the reader.

The red-haired woman represents so much more than she is; the allure, the mystery, the unknown of Turkey is all wrapped up in her. This sense of her as a representation seems a little clumsy in parts but that well could be the narrator’s fault rather than the author’s. Cem spends most of the book unaware of the relationships that he has developed and even as the reader learns of them, he remains in the dark. Nothing is as blind as the man who chooses not to see. This is frustrating but maybe that is the point.

If we can’t ‘Know Thyself’ then at least we have to be open to others knowing us better.

For Cem (and maybe the readers) this is the lesson.

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