Why Orhan Pamuk’s fans will be disappointed with The Red-Haired Woman

The utmost sophistication of a master is missing.

 |  5-minute read |   14-03-2018
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One drawback of being a successful writer whose works have been as highly praised as Orhan Pamuk's is that every one of his books is scrutinised and judged by the highest standards. If not so, then it can be said of the critics that they have failed to perform their duty.

Indeed, it must be hard for one to become the carping critic when dealing with a writer of Pamuk's calibre, as more often than not, one ends up reading his novels like an overawed and pliable child who gets absorbed in his beguiling tales. This writer certainly does.

Pamuk is among those rare writers whose literary finesse has only been enhanced after winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 2006. Though fame may burgeon for some after receiving the much-coveted prize, the same is not the case with the quality of work. We have seen great many literature laureates whose art declined after winning the Nobel Prize.

museum-of-innocence_031418035901.jpgMuseum of Innocence came after his Nobel.

Pamuk, however, continued to produce great works one after the other. The Museum of Innocence and A Strangeness in My Mind published in the subsequent years after he won the Nobel were both well-received.

Pamuk's last novel, The Red-Haired Woman, however, failed to garner the kind of ovations usually reserved for his novels. And it seems reasonable, for the novel, despite its originality, somewhat lacks the exceptional promise and quality that come with his books.

As is the case with many novels in his oeuvre, Pamuk builds the novel around his muse, Istanbul. The alluring intricacies and landscapes of Istanbul, its sky spangled with "the ten-thousands of stars" act as his canvas on which he paints his story. The novel is about fathers and sons, heroic passion and tragic guilt, loss and gain, and the eastern and the western sensibilities.

Pamuk tells his tale through two first-person narrators (Cem Çelik, the central character in the novel and the red-haired woman, Gülcihan). The first part of the novel is the most engaging one. But the novel somewhat loses its balance in the latter half of the second part, whence the reader would begin to grow weary till the story picks the familiar pace of the first part.

In the third part, the reader would end up connecting the dots as the story ends in the air. Despite its briefness, the final part has been written with such adroitness that it is not difficult to comprehend why it is the best among the three — it has the most magnificent prose.

A large part of the book is devoted to Istanbul: the changing demographics and infrastructure of the city, its growing traffic (absolute menace), and its denizens struggling to cope with modernity. The reader would find Pamuk treating the city with the same romanticism, which is conspicuous in his other novels as well.

One quality that sets Pamuk apart from his contemporaries is his power of telling a tale with the utmost sophistication of a master — the same is somewhat missing in this book. Even those who are accustomed to devour his novels would have to read this one sparingly.

red-haired-woman-690_031418035617.jpgThe Red-Haired Woman; Orhan Pamuk

The novel has a mistake too, which everybody seemed to have missed — the author, his translator, his publisher’s editors and his reviewers as well. Pamuk has got his calculations all wrong with the age of Enver (son of Cem and the red-haired woman). In Chapter 36, Cem's lawyer informs us that Enver's age is 26. And then he tells bewildered Cem that Enver’s mother claims that he had slept with her 30 years ago. But then Enver's age should be 29, not 26.

It is not the mistake that should worry Pamuk’s fans but the slowness of the Pamukian world in his latest novel. It is true that good writers do write some wayward books. And that one cannot expect great writers to produce one good book after the other. Not even from someone of Pamuk’s stature, who, despite his fame and achievements, is a controversial figure in his native land. But the latest novel indeed signals the decline in the art of one of the greatest storytellers, who has faced imprisonment for “insulting Turkishness” in the past. We can only wish he would bounce back with his next novel.

black-book_031418035635.jpgTo compare The Red-Haired Woman to The Black Book would be unjust.

The novel is translated by Ekin Oklaps, who had translated A Strangeness in My Mind as well. Those acquainted with reading Pamuk in brilliant translations of Maureen Freely, Erdag M Goknar and Victoria Holbrook, would find the translation of the latest novel to be meagre. Pamuk is certainly in a dire need of a new translator with a better vocabulary.

To compare this book with Pamuk's other mystery novels such as The Black Book or The White Castle would be unjust. But still someone familiar with all three works, would find the novel to be somewhat offhand — an extempore book. The Red-Haired Woman becomes quite predictable as it approaches its end.

In The Black Book, we come across Galip who is searching for his wife, Rüya. He suspects that she has eloped with Celal, a popular columnist. In one of the chapters, titled, The Three Musketeers, Celal, in his column, describes how during his early days as a columnist he had met three master columnists having a good time at a restaurant. He informs us that the three columnists were always dissenting and had fought the war of words in print. Among the many pieces of advice and observations by columnists pertaining to writing that enlightened the overexcited, young writer was: "The reader is like a child who wants to go to the fair."

We can only wish that Pamuk, with his future works, would do just that to us.

Also read: My reasons for not reading Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet


M Saad

Delhi-based freelance journalist.

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