A youthful misdeed prompts lifelong guilt in the protagonist of this brooding novel about fathers, sons, and the power of stories by Nobel laureate Pamuk (A Strangeness in My Mind, 2015, etc.).
In the summer of 1986, high school student Cem Çelik is working for a well digger on the outskirts of Istanbul. The work is backbreaking, but Cem forms a bond with Master Mahmut, telling us rather too many times that the well digger fills the void left by his vanished father, a left-wing militant who later turns out to be not in jail but with another woman. Fathers and sons just can’t get it right in this somber tale crammed with references to the story of Oedipus and its linked opposite, the Iranian national epic Shahnameh, in which a father unknowingly kills his son. Cem becomes obsessed with the Shahnameh after he accidentally drops a heavy bucket onto Master Mahmut at the bottom of a well, panics, and leaves town without telling anyone. As the story moves through several decades in Cem’s adult life, he hardly gives a thought to the red-haired actress who improbably slept with her teenage admirer after a performance at a tent theater near the well site—but that will turn out to be a fatal mistake. The novel has Pamuk’s customary wealth of atmospheric detail about his beloved Istanbul and the perennial conflict in Turkish politics (and in the Turkish soul) between secular modernism and traditional values. It’s also ham-fistedly obvious and relentlessly overdetermined; Pamuk seems to be trying for the stark authority of folklore and myth, but the novel’s realistic trappings don’t comfortably accommodate this intent. There are some bright spots: Pamuk paints a moving portrait of Cem’s childless marriage, and a searing final monologue by the red-haired woman very nearly redeems the flawed narrative that precedes it.
A disappointment, though no book by this skillful and ambitious writer is without interest.