5 Questions: Professor Orhan Pamuk Discusses His New Book 'The Red-Haired Woman'

November 08, 2017
Orhan Pamuk, Author

Photo by Elena Seibert

Orhan Pamuk, the Robert Yik-Fong Tam Professor of the Humanities and professor of writing in the School of the Arts, is one of Turkey's most prominent novelists. His books (in English) include The White Castle, The Black Book, My Name is Red, Snow, Istanbul: Memories of a City, The Museum of Innocence and A Strangeness in My Mind. His work has been translated into more than 60 languages, and he has received many international prizes, including the Prix Méditerranée Étranger, the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Prix Médicis Étranger and honorary membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2006, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Pamuk’s tenth novel, The Red-Haired Woman, was recently published. He will discuss literature in the age of globalization at the Journalism School on November 13 and his latest book at Miller Theatre on November 20.

Q. What is your new novel about?

A. It has two faces, so to speak. One is based on observation, and is the story of a master well-digger and his young apprentice who are looking for water on a barren plain in the mid-1980s in Turkey. In 1988, as I was trying to finish one of my books, I noticed on the land next to me a fatherly well-digger and his disciple. I was moved by the fact that in the mornings as they worked, the middle-aged man was scolding, shouting, crushing the boy. At night, as they watched their portable TV and enjoyed the soup that they cooked in the afternoon, the older person was very tender and attentive. I was interested because I was raised by a father who was not around too much and who never tried to control me, a mix of inattentive and humane. And here is the other face of the book: I cannot write a novel if there is not a personal, sentimental attachment to the subject. For example, I wrote My Name is Red, which is about 16th-century Ottoman painters, because I wanted to be a painter, but failed.

Q. Is well-digging a metaphor in the book?

A. In my part of the world, digging a well and finding water is crucial. In a barren land, water is civilization. When you find water, it rings—it sounds as if you’ve found a treasure. So well-diggers had a lot of power, especially in places where there were no rivers. In the 1970s, there was so much immigration to Istanbul that the government could not supply the newcomers with water. In this way, I explore authoritarianism in Turkey.

Q. At 250 pages, The Red-Haired Woman is about half the length of your recent novels. Are you making a conscious return to your earlier, shorter books?

A. In between long novels, I always have a desire to write short ones. The Red-Haired Woman is more like a novel of ideas, like my White Castle, which is a fable-like story about East and West.

Q. How do you explore the relationship between fathers and sons in the book?

A. As a Columbia professor who sees the names Homer, Herodotus, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes, Cicero and Vergil on top of Butler Library, I wanted to provoke Columbia’s Core Curriculum students studying these classic writers with this novel of ideas. So the book is a fictional comparison of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, which is about the killing of the father by the son, and the Persian poet Ferdowski’s classical tale Shahnameh, or Book of Kings, the story of Rostam and Sohrab, which is also a counterpart to Oedipus because this time the father kills the son. These are canonical texts of Western and Islamic civilization. My reading of these texts in my book suggests a modern sensibility, a new catharsis. As we pardon Oedipus’ transgressions, we also honor his individuality. As we cry for Rostam killing his son, we legitimize his authoritarianism. The Red-Haired Woman is about foundational myths, but this is also me taking myself too seriously, so I combined it with a playfulness of a tale, giving the last voice to the red-haired woman who turns the men’s stories inside out.

Q. Are you addressing the current political situation in Turkey in your writing?

A. I wrote The Red-Haired Woman because of increasing authoritarianism in my country. I thought it was a good time to write this story in which I depict the cruelty of the father figure while he is still loved and respected by his apprentice. It’s a way of understanding what is happening in Turkey. Western sociological theory tells us that as a country develops economically, democracy will also develop. This is not happening in Turkey. Criticizing the government on a daily basis is something I do outside my books, in interviews. Free speech is almost finished in Turkey, and there is no democracy without free speech. After the military coup in 2016, 50,000 were put in jail; 200 journalists are now in jail, some of whom are my friends. One definitely feels responsibility and commitment.

—By Eve Glasberg