He’s Turkey’s first-ever Nobel laureate and the best-selling author that nation has ever produced. His nine novels have sold more than 13 million copies in 63 languages. Yet Orhan Pamuk was once sued by an ultra-nationalist for “insulting Turkishness” when he spoke up about the Armenian genocide carried out a century ago, allegedly by the Ottoman government.
His stories are a little like his hometown of Istanbul: They are complex, rich creations in which disparate, even conflicting, ideas from East and West cross paths and dance, commingle, cross swords.
Pamuk, who teaches literature and writing at Columbia University, this month released the English translation of his 10th novel, The Red-Haired Woman, a slim volume by Pamuk standards, that returns to the themes and style of his earlier work, including The White Castle, The Black Book, and Snow.
Set in the 1980s, it’s the story of a lonely 16-year-old boy named Cem Çelik, who runs away to apprentice himself to an aging well-digger named Mahmut. It’s also a love story, the tale of how Cem nearly undoes himself and betrays his master when he falls madly in love with an actress.
Pamuk, 65, will be on the Penn campus at 12:30 p.m. Thursday to talk about the book. The event at the Harold Prince Theatre is sold out.
This book reminds me of some of your earlier work.
Yes, this novel has the quality of some of my more fablelike books, like White Castle. … But it is also a postmodern [fable] that plays around with ideas about East and West.
The book plays out themes from two myths about fathers and sons. One is the myth of Oedipus, a son who kills his father and marries his mother, a young subject who displaces the king as ruler and as husband.
And the other is [Persian 10th-century poet] Ferdowsi’s story Rostam and Sohrab, about a father who kills his son during battle. One is a story about individuality and breaking the rules, setting your own rules. The other is about authoritarianism and legitimizing the power of the state, of the government, of the father, or whatever you will. It’s important also to remember that Oedipus is also a detective story; it’s the story of a man who is looking for his father’s murderer.
In your story, too, there’s a digging for truth, digging down into the earth almost as an archaeologist would do, which is the way Freud described the work of the psychoanalyst.
Yes, but here there are more ambiguities. Literature is based on ambiguities. There’s a suggestion that Cem is digging deeper and deeper to a meaning, but that meaning might be God, or the meaning of life, or it may be [learning how] to endure, to have patience, to make a commitment. Or it might simply be to dig a well for water.
Why a story about a well-digger?
First of all, you should remember that in the Middle East[,] where there is water, there is civilization. Civilization happens when water is found. So water is so incredibly precious, and there is great pressure to find it. Second, after the 1960s and 1970s, there was a huge migration of people from the country into Istanbul, and the municipality or the government could not supply them with water, so people had to do all these things for themselves. So these were the best and happiest years for well-diggers, and they were doing their work the same way as as they were doing it in Byzantium a thousand years ago.
You describe how the well-diggers claimed they had magical powers.
When water is that important, the position of the well-digger becomes essential. His decision where on the land to dig the well is so important there is a sort of magical or supernatural quality to his work. He has a sort of charisma to him. But as Mahmut tells Cem, it’s all [baloney].
You used to watch well-diggers at work when you were little.
I have seen it many times. My grandmother used to warn us, “Don’t go too close to the well!” And I also interviewed old well-diggers.
The novel has a great deal of detail about their craft.
Yes. And this is something I want to say: That this book also works as a realist tale, too. Especially the first part. This is a very realistic story about digging wells the old-fashioned way.
You give the red-haired woman the last word. In fact, she narrates the final section of the book.
This was incredibly important to me. This book as well as A Strangeness in My Mind are based on my conversations with the people of Istanbul, and the more I talked to them the more I decided I needed to be a sort of feminist, to be what someone once described as a “street feminist.” Because my feminism is not theoretical but it’s based on seeing all these inequalities that are so hard not to see.
You see it also in traditional myths, which are rife with misogyny.
So here I am writing a book about a master and his apprentice which is very much about men. And I’m also discussing myths – and these myths all are men’s stories. In the end, if women are involved at all in them, they are passively crying. The women are crying and passive in these myths. What I wanted to do was to bring the strength of an active woman who helps us see through all these things. The red-haired woman in my story has the final say. We hear her interpretation both of the Oedipus myth and Ferdowsi’s Rostam and Sohrab, and she turns them inside out.
Orhan Pamuk. In discussion with former ambassador to Afghanistan Robert Finn at 12:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 12, at the Harold Prince Theatre, 3680 Walnut Street. Sold out.