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Orhan Pamuk Reveals Inspiration Behind New Book

By Zachary T.L. Mohamed, Contributing Writer

Book signings by Nobel Prize-winning authors tend to be popular events in Cambridge, and this event was no exception. On Sept. 25, Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author, visited the First Parish Church in Cambridge for a talk and book-signing session. The talk, hosted by Maria Tatar, the John L. Loeb Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures and of Folklore and Mythology at Harvard University, revolved around Pamuk’s new book, “The Red-Haired Woman.”

Pamuk began by introducing the book, which centers around an older man remembering his teenage years in the early 1980s in Turkey. The novel follows the boy’s struggles with his father, and his relationship with his family. Pamuk read portions of the book while attempting what he called a “Dickensian” habit of imitating the voices of his characters. Pamuk described the work, which at 272 pages is one of Pamuk’s shorter works, as “realist” and a book “about storytelling—theater and performance play an important role.”

Much of the conversation focused on the inspiration for Pamuk’s book. Pamuk noted that he was partially inspired by an interaction he had with two workers, an older man and a younger boy, digging a well in a plot of land next to his house in the summer of 1988, when he was finishing his fourth work, “The Black Book.” Pamuk described his observations of the older man’s treatment of the younger boy: During the day, according to the author, the older man was very strict and disciplinary, but at night, the man was very friendly and casual with the boy.

Pamuk recalled that he would interact with the two men, whom he later found out were father and son, on a daily basis, providing water and holding casual conversations with the two. Pamuk noted that he drew on this experience, as well as the Turkish fable, “Rustum and Sohrab,” a Turkish epic that centers around a fight between a father and a son, to develop “The Red Haired Woman.” When asked why the motif of the well resonated so deeply, Pamuk drew parallels from the story of Joseph, the Biblical story about a boy who makes his brothers jealous by receiving preferential treatment from his father. More broadly, however, Pamuk noted that the story is about water: “The story says that if you find water in the land, you will find the most important thing.”

Yet Pamuk characterized his approach to storytelling as a way of talking about issues of identity and place. While discussing the motif of the well, he added, “Why did I write a novel about the well? Well, in the Middle East, there was no civilization before the well. The well is a source of life and happiness.” Pamuk compared the tension between father and son in “The Red-Haired Woman” more generally with the tension between Eastern and Western canons in his works. Comparing Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” with the fable of “Rustum and Sohrab,” Pamuk noted that most in Istanbul would be able to recognize the latter story, but might not be able to identify the characters or the specific plot details as with the former tale, a phenomenon Pamuk attributed to Turkish Westernization.

Finally, Pamuk concluded with some thoughts about his writing process. When asked about how he begins writing novels, Pamuk said, “A book relies on inventiveness, creativity on many levels. You get 20 to 30 good ideas during a year, and write about maybe five of them.”

At the end of the event, a line formed around the inside of the church for the book signing. Cambridge resident Joan Dunfey commented, “He’s a really philosophical writer and a wonderful craftsman. He taps into myth or archetypal stories which is unusual, and I greatly enjoyed seeing him speak this evening.”

Michael Rodriguez, a Cambridge resident, commented, “I had never read Pamuk’s book before—his talk was incredibly refined and articulate, and it certainly made me want to read his books.”

Fans familiar with Pamuk also agreed. Ayfer Jory, a Cambridge resident, noted, “It was great: I have both Turkish and English copies [of Pamuk’s works], and reading the books in both languages did not change my understanding, which just shows how true to the original meaning the translators make the works.”

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