Quieter flows this red

Quieter flows this red
Finally we realise there were two red-haired women, one because of the other; and only one of them is “real”. And before you glare at me for revealing the ending, the second one is just a passing reference, and has no real role in the story.

The story is about Cem Celik. His father is a Leftist with a glad eye, in trouble with the Law and his marriage vows. He abandons his family, and the wife brings up Cem. To make money before college, he becomes an apprentice to a well-digger, Master Mahmut, going against his mother’s fierce admonition.

Master and apprentice pitch their tent on a hill, 15 minutes from Ongoren, where soldiers stationed during the last world war haven’t yet left. Here, Cem sees the red-haired older woman, and the clouds disperse and the sun comes out.

The well-digging begins. The process is elaborately described, even sketched out, going deeper and deeper into the earth, a womb that appears unending, yet yielding no result at all till the landowner puts up his hands. The womb of this well is, however, symbolic of the many dark truths that will emerge from our descent into the story.

Lying under the stars, they tell each other stories. The young man narrates the Greek myth of Oedipus. Mahmut tells the eastern story of Rostam and Sohrab. In the first, Oedipus kills a king he doesn’t know is his father, and fathers children with his mother. In the second, Rostam battles savagely with Sohrab, not knowing he’s fighting his son, and kills him. Cem has never really known or understood his father, and Mahmut slips into that role.

Cem discovers the red-haired woman is part of a travelling theatre. Her companions are fellow artistes; their relationships aren’t what he thought they were. He watches a performance, then makes love to the older woman, a life-changing event that has its repercussions, like a hurt nerve travelling from the past and wounding the future. An unfortunate incident makes him flee the place, with an uneasy burden of unconfirmed murder on his mind.

Life changes. His marriage is unfruitful, but fulfilling. Leaving behind thoughts of a writerly life, he starts a company with his wife, becomes rich and busy. He names the company Sohrab. He gets to meet his father after decades. Time passes. Istanbul has expanded, consuming smaller towns, so that Ongoren is now almost undistinguishable.

Cem is informed about a possible project there. And then events spiral, he meets the red-haired woman again, learns the rest of the past he’d left behind, and runs into an unsettling, tense climax that overturns everything. So much so that the last chapter slides away from beneath the patriarchal umbrella and finds utterance from a feminine perspective that’s been silently energising the story till now.

My Name Is Red to The Red-Haired Woman. Look at his oeuvre, and you’ll find much in common with Pamuk’s longer and more elaborate novels. This one flows quieter, and is narrated more steadily, with less poetic flourishes or lyrical interludes. But it is held together by a network of historical, literary and political references that emerge or is felt beneath its philosophical, almost soothing, penumbra of storytelling. Unswerving Islamism versus Western pragmatism, capitalism versus idealism, patriarchy versus a more rounded, independent-thinking equalism. Cem travels from missing his father to latching on to a surrogate father to becoming an heirless father to the uneasy, but welcome knowledge that he’s been a father all along. The red-haired woman is both lover and mother. It goes on.

Like answering a paper on the Oedipus and Rostam-Sohrab myths, and ticking Yes! as you go along, or seeing the light flash as you recognise myths coming alive, the relationships turn and change. The red-haired woman tells Cem she’s old enough to be his mother. His real father resurrects late in the day, and then dies. Cem thinks he’s killed his surrogate father, who emerges partially damaged from the event and ends up as a modest capitalist. The red-haired woman tells Cem to find a new father, “we all have many fathers in this country.”

The political equations are always presented: subtly, stated in the narrative, or through turns of events. The patriarchal archetypes persist, but finally it’s the feminine voice that makes us understand. The voice we’ve listened to all along turns out to be a different voice. The continuum of patricide for position, practised through centuries and cultures, of attaining the mother, of looking back to feel comfortable in the present, undying traditions, the awareness that must ultimately surface, even if it’s after the damage is done. The book is a rewarding reworking of myths, and also a reworking of Pamuk, but as befits his reputation, it’s a book that keeps you hooked.
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