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Excerpt: The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk

In this exclusive extract from Orhan Pamuk’s new book, The Red-Haired Woman, a young man feels his world transform after he catches a beautiful woman’s eye

books Updated: Aug 19, 2017 11:43 IST
Orhan Pamuk
Orhan Pamuk
Hindustan Times
Orhan Pamuk,The Red-Haired Woman,Turkey
La Ghirlandata by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)(De Agostini/Getty Images)

The settlement was fifteen minutes on foot from our well. It was the town of Öngören, population 6,200, according to the blue sign with enormous white letters marking the entrance. After two days of ceaseless digging, two meters, we took a break on the second afternoon and went down to Öngören to acquire more supplies.

Ali took us to the town carpenter first. Having dug past two meters, we could no longer shovel out the earth by hand, so like all welldiggers, we had to build a windlass. Master Mahmut had brought some lumber in the landowner’s pickup, but it wasn’t enough. When he explained who we were and what we were up to, the inquisitive carpenter said, “Oh, you mean that land up there!”

Over the following days, whenever we went down to the town from “that land up there,” Master Mahmut made a point of dropping by the carpenter; the grocer, who sold cigarettes; the bespectacled tobacconist; and the ironmonger, who stayed open late. After digging all day, I relished going to Öngören with Master Mahmut for an evening stroll by his side, or to sit in the shade of the cypress and pine trees on some little bench, or at a table outside some coffeehouse, on the stoop of some shop, or in the train station.

It was Öngören’s misfortune to be overrun by soldiers. An infantry battalion had been stationed there during World War II to defend Istanbul against German attacks via the Balkans, and Russian attacks via Bulgaria. That purpose, like the battalion itself, was soon forgotten. But forty years later, the unit was still the town’s greatest source of income, and its curse.

Most of the shops in the town center sold postcards, socks, telephone tokens, and beer to soldiers on day passes. The stretch known among locals as Diners’ Lane was lined with various eateries and kebab shops, also catering to the military clientele. Surrounding them were pastry shops and coffeehouses that would be jammed with soldiers during the day—especially on weekends—but in the evenings, when these places emptied out, a completely different side of Öngören emerged. The gendarmes, who patrolled the area vigilantly, would have to pacify carousing infantrymen and break up fistfights among privates, in addition to restoring the peace disturbed by boisterous civilians or by the music halls when the entertainment got too loud.

Thirty years ago, back when the garrison was even larger, a few hotels had opened to accommodate military families and other visitors, but transport links with Istanbul had since improved, and now these places stood mostly vacant. Showing us around town on that first day, Ali explained that some of them had been converted into semisecret brothels. These were all to be found in the Station Square. We took an immediate liking to this square, which boasted a small statue of Atatürk; the Star Patisserie, with its thriving ice-cream trade; a post office; and the Rumelian Coffeehouse—the entire scene lit by the golden-orange glow of the streetlamps.

On a street leading to the station was a depot for construction vehicles, where, Ali told us, his father was employed as a night watchman by one of Hayri Bey’s relatives. Late in the afternoon, Ali also took us to a blacksmith. Master Mahmut used the money Hayri Bey had advanced him to buy timber and metal clamps with which to bind together the various parts of the windlass. He also bought four bags of cement, a trowel, nails, and some more rope. This wasn’t what he would use to lower himself into the well. That far-sturdier rope was back at our camp, wrapped around the spool for the windlass we’d brought from Gebze.

We loaded all of our purchases onto a horse-drawn cart someone at the blacksmith’s had summoned for us. As the cart’s metal wheels made an unholy racket against the flagstones, I thought of how these days here were numbered, how I would soon be back with my mother in Gebze and, not long thereafter, in Istanbul. Walking alongside the cart, I sometimes found myself abreast of the horse, looking into his dark, tired eyes and thinking he must be terribly old.

When we reached the Station Square, a door opened. A middleaged woman in blue jeans stepped out onto the street. She looked over her shoulder, calling sternly, “Hurry up, will you?”

As the horse and I reached the open doorway, two more figures emerged: first, a man, maybe five or six years older than I was, and then a tall, red-haired woman who might have been his elder sister. There was something unusual, and very alluring, about this woman. Maybe the lady in jeans was the mother of this red-haired woman and her little brother.

“I’ll go get it,” the lovely red-haired woman called out to her mother before disappearing inside again.

But just as she was stepping back into the house, she glanced at me and the elderly horse behind me. A melancholy smile formed on her perfectly curved lips, as if she’d seen something unusual in me or the horse. She was tall, her smile unexpectedly sweet and tender.

“Come on, then!” her mother called out to her while the four of us—Master Mahmut, his two apprentices, and the horse—walked past. The mother looked annoyed at the Red-Haired Woman and paid us no heed.

Once the laden cart had rolled outside of Öngören and its flagstones, the noise of the wheels died down. When we had reached our plateau at the top of the slope, I felt as if we’d arrived at a different world altogether.

The clouds had dispersed, the sun was out, and even our mostly barren patch of ground seemed filled with color. Noisy black crows hopped onto the road that snaked between the cornfields, spreading their wings and taking off as soon as they saw us. The purple peaks toward the Black Sea had assumed a strange blue shade, and the rare clumps of trees among the drab, jaundiced plots in the plains behind the mountains seemed particularly green. Our land up here, the whole of creation, the pale houses in the distance, the quivering poplars, and the winding train tracks—it was all beautiful, and a part of me knew that the reason I felt this way was that beautiful red-haired woman I had just seen standing in the doorway of her house.

Read more: Orhan Pamuk unplugged

I hadn’t even gotten a proper look at her face. Why had she been arguing with her mother? Her whole demeanor had struck me as her red hair gleamed uncannily in the light. For a moment, she looked at me as if she already knew me, as if to ask what I was doing there. In that moment when we caught each other’s eye, it was as if we were both trying to summon, perhaps even to question, an ancient memory.

I looked at the stars and tried to picture her face as I drifted off to sleep.

First Published: Aug 18, 2017 18:44 IST