Thought about the subject of The Red-Haired Woman for 30 years: Orhan Pamuk | books | Hindustan Times
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Thought about the subject of The Red-Haired Woman for 30 years: Orhan Pamuk

In 1988, Pamuk observed an old man and his teenage disciple in Istanbul digging a well in the land next to his summer house, which sparked a line of thought.

books Updated: Sep 25, 2017 11:22 IST
Orhan Pamuk at his home in Istanbul.
Orhan Pamuk at his home in Istanbul.(Ozan Kose/AFP)

Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk likes to be a perfectionist, a trait that can be attested by the fact that he thought for 30 years the subject of his latest offering - a riveting story set in mid-1980s Turkey about a well-digger father-son duo. The Red-Haired Woman has just hit the book stores.

In 1988, Pamuk says he observed an old man and his teenage disciple in Istanbul digging a well in the land next to his summer house. “The elderly well digger was at times teaching and shouting at the boy and at other times was very tender and understanding to him. This triggered my sentiments about my father who was not much around in my life,” he says. “We know about the father as a repressive figure, but we think less about what happens when we don’t have this power in our lives,” the writer told PTI in an email interview.

Pamuk, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, says he thought of this subject for 30 years. “And three years ago, I decided to associate with old stories and myths,” he says. “The well-diggers in this book are real people in the sense that it is based on interviews I did with street vendors,” he adds. Pamuk believes in perfection and says he works a lot in this regard. “But overwriting is also a problem. One should write certain pages only once,” he says.

According to Pamuk, The Red-Haired Woman, published by Penguin, is about lower class immigrants from poor Anatolian towns and making of new Istanbul by these people especially during 1970-80. He touches upon subjects like street food, boza (a popular fermented beverage) and religion in the book. “Shanty towns, lower middle classes, street life and street sellers and their lives and dreams in Istanbul. This is what I wanted to write about... It is not too much about boza (a popular fermented beverage). I could have also have a character who sells rice and chicken, or yogurt, or meat balls, or fried liver, or stuffed mussels - food that is still being sold in Istanbul by street vendors,” he says.

Pamuk ate a lot of these delicacies while writing the novel. “In fact I have characters that sell these things too... But boza is interesting because it is slightly fermented... The alcohol content of three glasses of boza is equal to a glass of beer. And traditional Ottomans did not think boza had alcohol and enjoyed it. It was very popular in Ottoman Empire and still popular in Balkans and North Africa...,” he says.

Boza, according to him, legitimised joy of alcohol to Ottomans. “Some pious Ottoman rulers and Sultans knew this and closed the boza shops along with wine houses. Some did not care and enjoyed it like Kemal Ataturk who legitimised alcohol in Turkey. But even after Ataturk’s secular republic, people enjoyed boza. This time, not for the alcohol but for its ritual. For the fact that it reminded of middle classes of Istanbul of good old Ottoman times,” he says. So the characters in the novel argue: What is identity... Is it based on religion - Islam? “Then alcoholic boza should not be included. Or is it about old things, history and old stories. Then boza is a part of our identity...I play around these subjects,” Pamuk says.

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