A Turkish Woman in the Oedipus Complex: Orhan Pamuk’s “The Red-Haired Woman”

Erdağ Göknar reviews Orhan Pamuk's latest.

A Turkish Woman in the Oedipus Complex: Orhan Pamuk’s “The Red-Haired Woman”

The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk. Knopf. 272 pages.

COULD A CONTEMPORARY STORY of love and vengeance set in Turkey have its roots in ancient myths of patricide and filicide? This is what Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk convincingly contends in his 10th and latest novel, The Red-Haired Woman. The two dominant and competing myths come from ancient Greece and Persia (Greece and Iran today are Turkey’s Western and Eastern neighbors): the Oedipal myth from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, where son unknowingly kills father, and the legend of Rostam and Sohrab from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, where father unknowingly kills son. The myths can be read as generational allegories about tradition and modernity, the East/West conflict, Islam and secularism, and even socialism and capitalism. This is what Pamuk intends as he skillfully intermingles textual traditions and historical time periods, establishing the trademark intertextuality and intertemporality of his fiction. But The Red-Haired Woman, though it engages father-and-son conflict, is, importantly, a woman’s story.

Pamuk has previously alluded to both myths in his fiction, which represent tropes of East/West encounter. The Shahnameh story first appears in Pamuk’s Ottoman historical novel My Name Is Red (Knopf, 2001) as one of the canonical eastern tales that miniaturists depicted, particularly the moment of father Rostam’s realization that he’s killed his son Sohrab. This account is cleverly contrasted with that of Oedipus. The final scene in My Name Is Red, for example, depicts the portrait of a mother (the savvy woman Shekure) nursing the child (the author-figure Orhan) as a kind of iconic union. In Pamuk’s world, Oedipus-like characters struggle against “fathers” of tradition, defeating them and often creating a work of literature in the process. The ghost of the traditional (Ottoman-Islamic) father, however, is always near, haunting the secular modern son and protagonist.

Pamuk’s political novel about the contemporary conflict between Islamism and secularism, Snow (Knopf, 2004), picks up on the theme of filicide. The Islamic extremist Blue recounts the Rostam story as a parable to Ka, the secular, modern intellectual:

“[T]his thousand-year-old story [of Sohrab and Rostam] comes from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. […] Once upon a time, millions of people knew it by heart — from Tabriz to Istanbul, from Bosnia to Trabzon — and when they recalled this story, they found the meaning in their lives. The story spoke to them in just the same way that Oedipus’ murder of his father or Macbeth’s obsession with power and death speak to people throughout the Western world. […]”

Both men fell silent.

“Let me guess what you’re thinking,” said Blue. “Is this story so beautiful that a man could kill for it? That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know,” said Ka.

“Then think about it,” said Blue, and he left the room.

In this exchange, an association is made between an Islamist worldview and the Rostam story; meanwhile, Western-style modernity is linked to the Oedipus myth. Each story stands in for conflicting political imaginaries. Blue is later assassinated by operatives of the secular Turkish deep state. In vengeance, Ka is killed by Islamist supporters of Blue. Both myths maintain political force in the novel. In an act of recuperation, however, the author “Orhan” is able to sustain an optimistic hybrid of secularism and moderate Islamism within the space of the novel.

The productive tension between these two foundational civilizational myths has informed Pamuk’s novels for some time. In my analysis of Pamuk’s fiction, Orhan Pamuk, Secularism and Blasphemy, I use the shorthand din (religious tradition) and devlet (secular state) to represent the two conflicting yet mutually sustaining politics. Pamuk relies on the myths of Rostam and of Oedipus to provide cultural maps for two positions of political power. The conflict between these distinct cultural formations of Islamic tradition and secular modernity leads to an unlikely outcome: the production of a contemporary, global novel.

The Red-Haired Woman is structured in three parts. Each part corresponds in turn to one of the main characters of a symbolic Turkish Oedipal complex: the Islamic father (Mahmut/Part One), the secular son (Cem/Part Two), and the feminist woman (Gülcihan/Part Three). In this way, Pamuk qualifies the clichéd Islam versus secularism binary by giving narrative voice to the silenced woman/mother.

Part One recounts the month-long experience of adolescent protagonist Cem in 1985 while he works as a well-digger’s apprentice in the town of Öngören (“Foreseeing”). Turkey has just experienced a major military coup in 1980. In the background, a military base reminds the reader of the ongoing threat of intervention. The master well-digger, the devout Mahmut, becomes something of a surrogate father to Cem, and he recounts Koranic parables to him in the evenings.

Meanwhile, after watching the titular red-haired actress (Gülcihan) perform scenes from legend, Cem meets and has a tryst with her. The gender norms of 1980s Turkey are set up as follows:

In those years, if an attractive woman in her thirties who was made-up and wearing a pretty navy blue skirt (even if for the sake of theater) were to say to a man at ten thirty at night, “Let’s walk down the street some more,” for most men, unfortunately, this could mean only one thing.

The red-haired woman is a libertine member of a left-leaning, traveling theater troupe, and Cem loses his virginity to her. (A similar leftist theater troupe appears in Pamuk’s novel Snow, and is responsible for initiating a coup attempt.) Later, we also learn that she has already had an affair with Cem’s absent father, evoking another Oedipal triangle. When Cem accidentally drops a bucket down the 20-yard-deep well at the bottom of which Master Mahmut is working, he flees assuming the worst — that he has killed him. Meanwhile, the well (symbol of the womb), takes on a further metaphorical significance, suggesting the archeological metaphor that Freud relied on in explaining his model of the psyche. The red-haired woman becomes the object of guilt-ridden Cem’s intellectual fixations for the remainder of his life.

Part Two follows Cem, who first aspires to be a writer, in Istanbul from 1986 to the mid-2000s. He becomes a geological engineer and contractor as well as a successful, secular purveyor of modernity. In an otherwise faithful translation by Ekin Oklap, the narrative flags here due to summary description. Cem and his wife Ayşe are unable to have children, as a result of an unnamed condition she has. Both husband and wife are uncannily interested in the Eastern and Western myths of Rostam/Sohrab and Oedipus. To the degree that they name their joint construction company Sohrab, the Shahnameh hero who is fated to be killed by his father. Ironically, Sohrab is given a kind of eternal life as a corporation in the neoliberal era of conservative Islamist politics.

Word reaches Cem that he has a son by the revolutionary red-haired actress. The company prepares to buy property in Öngören. This gives Cem a chance to see the red-haired woman again, and his son, Enver, for the first time. Relying on a technique of genre-switching, the novel assumes the tone of a film noir script in this section. In a climactic and melodramatic scene, father and son grapple with each other at the mouth of the symbolic “well” the father had labored over 30 years prior.

Gülcihan, the red-haired woman, narrates Part Three. Her concluding narration echoes the way she would finish theatrical reenactments in her youth with monologues. Ostensibly, this is a novel that explores father/son themes, but Pamuk insightfully ends by including what’s missing from both Eastern and Western accounts — a woman’s voice. Switching to the triangulating narrative voice of Gülcihan allows Pamuk to sustain both foundational myths at the same time. In the end, Pamuk’s revision gives authority (and authorial voice) to the woman, who usurps the place of the father. Enver (the son) has been arrested for patricide pending trial. Gülcihan encourages him to pen the novel we are reading as a testimony to his innocence (the account of a novel being written is a hallmark metafictional device of Pamuk’s novels). While the case waits to be heard, it is revealed that mother and son stand to inherit two-thirds stake in the company Sohrab.

Readers will inevitably ponder what kind of female agency is being depicted in The Red-Haired Woman. Gülcihan exists first as an object of adolescent desire and then as a grieving or conniving mother. Her depictions on stage are of wives and mothers, whether of Oedipus’ mother Jocasta, of Rostam’s wife Tahmineh, or of a generic Turkish housewife. Granted, the novel evokes an iconic red-haired woman as an elemental force, and this reviewer was reminded of the famous lines by Sylvia Plath: “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.” Perhaps Pamuk’s red-haired woman aspires to this mythic, elemental force of feminism. But Gülcihan is nonetheless limited to the personas of paramour and devoted mother. We learn of the detail that her hair is dyed, not natural, as if she both lacks and appropriates the authenticity of a female archetype. As with Freud’s model of the family romance, there is no independent place for femininity in this story unless it is related to masculinity. Though the men, including Cem’s father, Master Mahmut, and Cem himself are all fated to die, the two main female characters (Ayşe and Gülcihan) stand to inherit ownership of Sohrab, the company, through bonds of marriage and motherhood, respectively. Thus The Red-Haired Woman depicts a conditional enfranchisement, one that also reflects the plight of women in Turkey.

As in My Name Is Red and Snow, the Oedipal fantasy takes precedence in The Red-Haired Woman. The Oedipal myth can also be read metaphorically as a historical narrative of revolutionary Turkish secular modernity, or Kemalism, in which the younger generation sweeps away the old. By extension, the myth also evokes the psychological and historical dialectics of Freud and Marx, of progressive change through the usurpation of the power of the “father.” This is, among other things, a plot predicated on science, secularism, and positivism. In the novel, scientific DNA testing establishes the patrimony of the child and secular law allows a disenfranchised woman and her son to become part of a new socio-economic order. At the novel’s close, the son, Enver, actually does become an author, something that his father had aspired to. As such, Enver identifies with the same-sex parent, perhaps bringing resolution to the Oedipal complex through a process of writing that exonerates and redeems him.

The Red-Haired Woman reveals itself to be both a dramatization and a disruption of Oedipal patriarchy in a world where patrimony passes from father to son. Women do exercise agency, but relationally, through their husbands or sons. The Turkish state gave women rights in the 1920s and ’30s, but these top-down reforms were not the result of demands originating within society. The Turkish ideal of the modern woman represented a small cosmopolitan elite, and state feminism focused on expanding women’s public roles. It is in some respects the first wave of Turkish feminism in the republican era and an important stage in establishing individual feminist rights for women in Turkey. This history is recapitulated in the gendered perspective that Pamuk writes into the well-worn myths of East and West.

Like Pamuk’s previous novel A Strangeness in My Mind, The Red-Haired Woman is also one of class inversion, ending with the final enfranchisement of marginalized characters — an optimistic, even idealistic, story of the rising tide of modernity lifting all boats. We learn, for example, that Master Mahmut (who survived the accident) buys property, which he sells at a profit. For the Oedipal myth, as commentators have written, also bears the logic of capitalism. And Turkey’s Oedipal complex is bound up in the trials and tribulations of capitalist and neoliberal modernization in a country divided between secularism and Islamism. On one hand, The Red-Haired Woman is a novel that celebrates characters who are Oedipalized into the modern neoliberal order. On the other hand, while that celebration exposes familial violence, it conceals a concomitant history of state violence that maintains the patriarchal order. As modern Turkish history reveals, the political father — whether the erstwhile secular founder Atatürk or the current Islamist President Erdoğan — rules like Rostam rather than Oedipus. The success of this novel, subtly staged, is that it allows us to consider how these ideologies might coexist.


Erdağ Göknar directs the Duke University Middle East Studies Center and is the award-winning translator of Pamuk’s novel My Name Is Red (Knopf) as well as the author of Orhan Pamuk, Secularism and Blasphemy: The Politics of the Turkish Novel (Routledge). His most recent publication is a collection of poetry, Nomadologies (Turtle Point).

LARB Contributor

Erdağ Göknar is associate professor of Turkish at Duke. He is the award-winning. English translator of Orhan Pamuk’s novel My Name Is Red (Knopf), the author of Orhan Pamuk, Secularism and Blasphemy (Routledge), and the co-editor (with Pelin Kıvrak) of Conversations with Orhan Pamuk, forthcoming from University Press of Mississippi.


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