Pamuk masterfully contrasts East with West, tradition with modernity, the power of fables with the inevitability of realism. Can we have our myths but be spared their consequences? As usual, Pamuk handles weighty material deftly, and the result is both puzzling and beautiful.
Many of Pamuk’s works, including My Name Is Red, Snow, and The Black Book, contain self-conscious, postmodern twists in which the tale reflects back on itself. This one is packed with so many allusions to patricide and filicide that the plot ends up overdetermined. Perhaps the point is that human freedom is an illusion, that by trying to elude fate we only end up hastening its arrival. But Pamuk has also built a structure whose scaffolding has not been removed. It is a well site that, for all the strenuous digging, comes up dry. Narrated by a middle-aged Cem reflecting on the passions and blunders of his youth, the opening section is the most evocative part of the novel. The rest, delivered by another narrator, is commentary ... The myths of violent encounters between fathers and sons that are the subtext for The Red-Haired Woman are familiar and credible. But the story contrived to give fresh life to those myths creaks.
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 ... What you’ll have to decide is whether Pamuk has penned the Sophoclean tragedy he aimed for or just another Turkish melodrama.