Photos by Wouter Vellekoop.
On Saturday the 23rd of September, Border Kitchen hosted an event with writer Orhan Pamuk. More than half an hour before the event started, a large line gathered in front of the Lutheran Church in The Hague. The event was sold out and many excited fans couldn’t wait to hear the author speak.
The Red-Haired Woman
The interviewer – Chris Keulemans – definitely seemed excited to talk about Orhan Pamuk’s newest novel The Red-Haired Woman. The story is about a well-digger and a young, fatherless boy. They become dependent on each other, but when a theatre group comes into town, a red-haired woman turns into a welcome diversion with great consequences.
Pamuk has written about these kinds of theatre groups before and Keulemans wondered if Pamuk went to see them as a child. He didn’t see many of them himself. These theatre groups were often about exhibiting sexy things, according to Pamuk, and in this book, he just needed a lady that would attract the boy. In Turkey, red-haired women are often thought of as mysterious and almost magical, but they also have an easy virtue and are prone to anger. Jokingly, he told us a story about traveling to London and being shocked by the sheer amount of red-haired women he saw there. In Turkey, it’s rare to be born with red hair, so whenever a woman does dye it, it’s considered a radical choice. It says something about the woman and how she wants to be perceived.
Fathers and Sons
The book combines the story of Oedipus Rex and Book of Kings, two stories about fathers and sons killing each other. When Pamuk starts explaining why he chose these two stories, you can really tell that he’s a lecturer at Columbia. His funny way of telling Oedipus’ story – ‘at the end he just cries and cries and cries’ – made me want to visit one of his lectures.
Oedipus is about a son killing his father, while Book of Kings is about a father killing his son. The first story is a western story, and often considered a story of individualism. We understand Oedipus and feel sorry for him. Book of Kings is an Eastern story, often thought of as authoritarianism, because it legitimizes the father killing his son. These themes of fathers and sons, lack of fathers and lack of individualism in sons were ideas he wanted to explore further.
A big part of the story is spent on the well-digger and the boy who accompanies him. Keulemans wanted to know the connection between this well-digger and the two classic stories, hinting at the current political climate in Turkey. Although Orhan Pamuk did talk about it, he seemed reluctant to do so. He was more interested in telling us about the well-digger, which is based on a person he met when he was young. He says it’s his job as a writer to pay attention to detail and this story stayed with him.
Keulemans doesn’t give up entirely and asks Orhan Pamuk why so many of his characters deal with guilt and if that’s something he deals with himself. Pamuk laughs and says that he’s not sure why his characters are like this and that it isn’t some kind of Freudian interpretation. But he does feel guilty. He comes from a middle-class family and he felt guilty for choosing to be a writer because it didn’t pay enough. He also feels guilty about not being in prison while so many other writers in Turkey are. But guilt doesn’t destroy him. He writes about it, trying to turn it around. It motivates him because he sees it as a social guilt, not a personal one.
Keulemans compares The Red-Haired Woman to a thriller. It’s a page-turner, especially near the end. Here Orhan Pamuk immediately interrupts him. ‘Don’t tell the ending!’ he says quickly for all the readers who haven’t read the book yet. Pamuk then explains that the ending is again about Oedipus and Book of Kings. These stories are men-driven, but what about the women? The ending of the novel is a monolog by the red-haired woman, adding a twist to these ‘men-stories’. Although as a woman she is oppressed, she does get to have the final word. Women have the strength to break free of the stories the men are stuck in.
Ending the evening, Orhan Pamuk shows his feminist side. Throughout the years, he noticed he’s getting more feminist but does call it street-level feminism and not the academic feminism he admires in his colleagues at Cambridge. To illustrate he tells a story about buying delicious street food in Turkey, where he strikes up a conversation with the vendor. This vendor boasts about how he handpicks the perfect rice and the perfect chicken to create the meal. Pamuk asks him how he prepares it and the vendor explains he does all of this himself as well, putting all of his love and attention into it. This keeps going until they get to the dishes and Pamuk asks who does those. The vendor answers that his wife does them. Almost immediately he starts admitting that she actually prepares the food as well. That she picks the flavors and even the ingredients. All the vendor really does is sell the food and nothing else. Proudly, Pamuk laughs and tells us that he exposes the truth in his own way.