Digging down to the centre of the earth
This novel abounds with paternal and filial obsessions: the paternal authority, which has to be rejected, is political, cultural, psychological
Many religious cosmogonies teach that it is only by killing the father that we are able to build a new reality where we can freely thrive. Zeus, Greek king of gods, has to murder Chronos so that a new universe can begin. Rudra has to kill Prajapati. Only then a new era can start.
Sigmund Freud has famously employed Sophocles’s tragedy Oedipus Rex to tell his patients that only by metaphorically killing their father they could become adults, and that such instinct is secretly repressed in most of us. Fathers create the useful and yet constraining super-ego teaching us the limits of life, which at some point must be dealt with in order to give way to a freer, more mature and creative relationship with our existence.
Theatre of growth
Symbolic patricide is a necessity, a destiny that can’t be eluded if you are to attain individual freedom. This is one pillar of the latest, masterly novel by Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, The Red-Haired Woman. But there are many more reasons why this clever, absorbing tale proves why this writer earned his 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature—it is in the capacity of turning a fascinating novel into an archetypal lesson which helps us interpret the present, but at the same time captures a perennial human and political tendency.
The style of The Red-Haired Woman is sparse and direct, taking fewer lyrical flights than My Name is Red or The Museum of Innocence. This is a world requiring a controlled and condensed prose that won’t let you go.
The main character, Cem, wanted to be a writer, but ended up studying engineering geology. His pharmacist father was involved in politics in Turkey and disappeared twice. During one of these fatherless seasons, the middle-class teenager is forced to get a summer job to help the family finances. He’s thus enlisted by the protective yet rugged well-digger, Master Mahmut, to spade for water in the outskirts of Öngören, pop. 6200, a village slowly swallowed up by Istanbul, as the plot develops over the last 30 years.
This is the stage upon which much deeper digging takes place. The well becomes the mystical humus of a more profound research for a chthonic revelation. Closer to the Earth’s center is where truth is hidden.
This is not a Murakamian well, a hiding place of isolation. It is the theatre of growth, tragedy and discovery. It’s where the book begins and ends. Sure, this 25 meters deep hole is the symbol of solitude, since only a person at a time can fit in it. But it is at its bottom that the sky looks more remote, “like the world at the wrong end of a telescope.” It is where all secrets are kept, where the people of Istanbul have been discarding everything for hundreds of years. And it all slowly emerges in the excavation. Even valuables. “If you cared about something valuable, but then left it inside a well and forgot about it, what did that mean?” Pamuk helps us discover it with a series of surprises.
The build up of Cem and Master Mahmut’s relationship is slow, but it truly does not allow you to avert your gaze. A fatherless son and a sonless father. “To survive,” says the master, “a well digger must be able to trust his apprentice as he would his own son.”
Everything looks set to go down Paulo Coelho’s way, but fortunately it doesn’t. By the campfire, Cem relates Oedipus’s tale, and Master Mahmut quotes Islamic legends that tell a different story. Cem is bewitched by a fiery, older red-haired actress. He sneaks into the village to attend a theatre play depicting a scene from the “Shahnameh,” The Book of Kings, the world’s longest epic poem written by the Persian author Ferdowsi, where the warrior Rostam unknowingly takes the life of his son Sohrab. And weeps clutching his corpse.
Consoling Cem for feeling abandoned by his father, the red-haired woman tells him: “Find yourself a new father. We all have many fathers in this country. The fatherland, Allah, the army, the Mafia… No one here would ever be fatherless.” Then Cem commits what he believes is a crime that will haunt him with guilt for decades.
This novel abounds with paternal and filial obsessions, mostly because it is making a larger and extremely relevant political point. The paternal authority we find here is the same we identify with as the State. And Pamuk, even though enraptured in an archetypal narrative, can’t elude the fact that he lives in President Recep Erdogan’s Turkey, a country governed by an increasingly authoritative father figure. But, again, the novel is not weighed down by the caducity of contemporary news.
Oedipus, psychological symbol of the son who rejects his father and resents his authority, is representative of individualistic Western rebellion. Rostam, the father, who by murdering his own son demonstrates his ultimate power, is here to incarnate “the authoritarian Asian father.” Patricide vs filicide. West vs East.
There’s a revealing passage in The Red-Haired Woman, apropos, and it deals with an obscure book by Wittfogel on “the canals, dams, roads and aqueducts needed to support agriculture with challenging terrain in certain Asian nations, like China.” In this technical treatise on irrigation systems, the author argues that the vast bureaucracies needed to build the kind of infrastructure necessary to bring development in agriculture and industry “can be established only under strictly authoritarian regimes, whose rulers brook no resistance or rebellion.” It is, in other words, the good old Roman epoch dictatorship needed “to bring order in chaotic times.”
“It seems we would all like a strong, decisive father telling us what to do and what not to do. Is it because it is so difficult to distinguish what we should and shouldn’t do, what is moral and right from what is sinful and wrong? Or is it because we constantly need to be reassured that we are innocent and have not sinned?,” asks a young poet that the adult Cem, now a rich and successful entrepreneur in real estate encounters after a sonless life.
In fact, one myth that is missing from Pamuk’s book is the “complex of Telemachus,” Odysseus’ son— the long-suffering heir who waits for his father’s return to Ithaca, alongside his mother Penelope. He represents the insecure and immature individual lost in the masses, convinced that a missing father will return and bring justice.
Telemachus is like Sorhab, Rostam’s ingénue son, who goes to battle to ensure his father becomes king, only to be killed by him in an ironic twist of destiny, just like in The Divine Comedy Count Ugolino’s children become his meal.
This is again a beguiling, well woven thread in Pamuk’s novel. Both Rostam’s and Oedipus’ tales clearly announce one thing: by trying to escape it, you are realising your fate.
The fate of the West, Pamuk tells us, is to be fatherless, like Oedipus. “The modern man is lost in the chaos of the city.” And the individualist’s search for a father is effectively pointless. “He’ll never find a father in the tumult of the city. If he finds him, he’ll cease being an individual.”
He juxtaposes the secular quest with the paternal reassurance of religion, reminding the reader that Jean-Jacques Rousseau abandoned his four children on purpose, in order to ensure they’d grow up to be modern.
But being fatherless creates a reverberating vacuum. “When you grow up without a father, you think there is no end to the universe, and you think you can do whatever you want….” This, again, is the philosophical cry of a pivotal figure we can’t reveal, in order not to spoil the plot. “But eventually you find you don’t know what you want, and you start looking for some sort of meaning, some focus in your life: someone to tell no to.” Secularism, existentialism, revolution.
And yet, it is in the tension of this quest, the fatherless son looking for his origins, that we experience our current contradictions. Just like those of the Turkish Westernised classes who “are so obsessed with individualism, they’ve forgotten how to be themselves, let alone how to be individuals,” says a young, right-wing, radicalised character.
Tears of mothers
In all this, there is an agent without which there would be no father and no son—the mother. The lover, the wife, the woman, all these are characters who seem marginal for most of the book, but who come back with a vengeance to demand their proper place.
And, as the reader will discover, the mother has a much more central role than the red-haired woman admits in an important monologue reminding us that “the logic of the universe turns on the tears of mothers”: “Whether it is fathers killing their sons, or sons killing their fathers, men always emerged victorious, and all that was left for me to do was weep.”