Sylvia Plath’s poem “Lady Lazarus” ends with these punching lines: “Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair/ And I eat men like air.” Resurrection and cannibalism aside, you get the point, one pushed throughout literature and art: Red-haired women are a fiery lot, passion-fed.
The eponymous red-haired woman of Turkish Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk’s new novel is no different. An actress in an itinerant theater troupe, she throws lightning through this story and through the young man singing it.
“The Red-Haired Woman” is recognizably Pamukian terrain: theater, fable and Turkey’s trembling perch between the ancient and the modern. Its plot is simple: A well-digger, Master Mahmut, hires 16-year-old Cem to become his apprentice and search for water on the arid outskirts of Istanbul, where myth vies with dirt for purchase on the day. They rest and gather supplies in the nearby town of Ongoren, and there Cem becomes transfixed by the red-haired actress. He can think of nothing else — infatuation is a cousin to madness — and he does what impetuous youth normally do: He seeks her out.
What’s not normal here is her reaction to him. Though double his age, she welcomes his inner rumblings, the adolescent vaulting of his heart. But she has reason to welcome this, and by novel’s end, you learn that reason. Distracted by his desire for her, Cem drops a bucket on Mahmut while he digs at the base of the well. He then flees, believing Mahmut dead, and returns to Istanbul to resume his life, resolving to behave “as if nothing had happened,” which is one of the many bogus machinations of this novel. Thirty years on, after becoming a wealthy engineer, Cem returns to Ongoren to face his past and learn the identity of the red-haired woman and the repercussions of their tryst.
“Why had I spent almost thirty years believing that I might have accidentally killed Master Mahmut?” Cem asks. “It was probably because I’d read Oedipus the King and relied on its truths.”
Or probably not.
You’ll have to endure Pamuk’s clangorous hammering about “the enigma of fathers and sons.” Cem’s father, a leftist agitator frequently jailed, deserted Cem and his mother, and so Cem’s daddy issues stick out all over the place, which makes his abandonment of the paternal Mahmut downright baffling. The events of the novel, Pamuk writes, are “all owing to a story, a myth” — “life follows myth!” — and you wish he’d stop pointing that out.
Pamuk’s chief handicap as a novelist has always been his eager didacticism, his spotlighting of all the allusions and symbols. Here there are symbolic stars, symbolic books, symbolic women, intercut with loads of uselessly deep musings about the firmament. To be insistently metaphorical is one thing; to be insistently metaphorical while repeatedly explaining those metaphors is something else. Pamuk is forever afraid his reader isn’t paying attention. The marshaling of myth can make for dynamic storytelling, but Pamuk is too frequently a stranger to the potency of nuance, to the furtive unfoldings of character and plot.
The real trouble here is the translator’s prose. Ekin Oklap’s incessant reliance on dead language does great injury to Pamuk’s already damaged tale. Oklap can barely get through a paragraph without enlisting the most dancing cliches: from “lost in thought” to “a lost cause,” from “the crack of dawn” to “the evening chill.” Some lines consist entirely of stock phrasing: “He’d languished in prison, but unlike some others, he hadn’t changed his tune.” Here are some truly inept English sentences: “A vision of the Red-Haired Woman would dawn in my mind out of nowhere like a sultry sun”; “A parched tenderness lay dormant inside me, ready to bloom at the first sign of moisture.” Add to that the stuttering alliteration — “beaming bucktoothed, busty wife” — and you have the worst translation Pamuk has ever suffered in English.
The novelist himself is not blameless. When he writes that “the Red-Haired Woman’s body was better than anything I had imagined,” he rather unhelpfully leaves us to imagine what he means.
This is a desert of demons and jinn, of ancient umbras in the gloaming, but the most vivid and consequential force is the red-haired enchantress in town, very much human. Mahmut’s search for water and Cem’s search for the woman are aligned in that each is really a search for life, and Pamuk is at his best when detailing the arduous dig, the tactile impositions and fleeting loveliness of that land. In the final chapter, as in “My Name Is Red,” Pamuk upsets the understanding with which you’ve been reading, shifts the narrative ground so that you must reconfigure the tale you’ve just been told. What you’ll have to decide is whether Pamuk has penned the Sophoclean tragedy he aimed for or just another Turkish melodrama.
William Giraldi is the author, most recently, of “The Hero’s Body: A Memoir.”
On Sept. 28 at 7 p.m., Orhan Pamuk will be in conversation with Azar Nafisi at St. Paul’s, 4900 Connecticut Ave. NW. For tickets, call Politics and Prose Bookstore at 202-364-1919.
By Orhan Pamuk
Translated from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap
Knopf. 253 pp. $26.95