End of an era

What the Harry Potter generation read next.

Let us imagine, for a moment, that your life is being novelised as a coming-of-age story for young adults. Let us also suppose that the author plans to centre the novel on the climactic moment where you finally realise your childhood is over and a world of responsibility beckons. How did your childhood end? Can you picture the scene? Was it one specific moment? Two? You saw both of mine live on television.

It is likely that ours will be remembered as the generation that smashed the windows of Foot Locker. But perhaps I can convince you to remember us also as the generation that formed orderly queues outside Waterstones and waited, dripping with excitement and rainwater, for the last Harry Potter book? When you saw us on the news, you were watching our childhoods end. We were in denial, though; cries of "we still have three films left!" were stifled only this summer, when you saw us in Trafalgar Square, waiting for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.

So our childhoods really were over, and when things in the real world got too scary, there was nothing left of Harry Potter's world to hide in. We are a generation that needs fantasy. Unfortunately, it is likely you will remember us fulfilling this need with fantastically violent video games. But perhaps I can convince you to remember us also pulling fantasy novels off shelves and reading them on bookshop floors.

With Potter finished, the great hunt for more fantasy began. We re-read Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. We tried Twilight along with everyone else, but slightly snobbishly turned our noses up at it, tweeting and blogging Stephen King's quote: "Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend." We tried Paolini's Inheritance Cycle, but having grown up with Hermione, Luna and Mrs Weasley as strong female role models, we struggled with female fantasy characters who existed only as a fantasy for teenage boys. Exasperated, we wondered if we were just too old.

But as the withdrawal grew worse, we finally found our fix. All three installations of Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games trilogy had been published by 2010 and we hadn't read any of them, it seemed no one had read any of them. Someone prominent amongst the Potterheads tweeted or blogged or vlogged about it and suddenly it went viral. We were all talking about it, breathless and excited in the way we used to be. It was hypnotically fast-paced, set in a world so close yet so far from home, the heroine was full of flaws and so was the love story. There were characters of every age to adore and abhor. And were those some morals hiding between the lines? We had grown so used to feeling guilty about "fast-paced books" and "easy reads" - ' but, just as Potter had been, this was different and we handed it to our little brothers in the hope they would learn something from it.

Perhaps you will remember us as the generation that refused to pay for our music, but please remember that we also continued to spend our pocket money on books. They cost about £3 each on the Kindle - I downloaded and read three books in four days, then called a friend of mine and instructed him to do the same. "OK," he said, "I'm busy. I'll take a look later." My voice rose a little. "You don't understand. This is a book recommendation." The Potter generation is a tough crowd to please; I thought he might take me a little more seriously. "Yeah OK, I'll look it up later." I gripped the phone a little tighter. "I am recommending this book to you because I haven't been this excited about new fiction since Harry Potter." He was silent for a moment as he processed this. "OK. I'm buying it right now."

You see, teenagers don't use Twitter, Blackberry Messenger and "word of mouth" just to pass messages of fear and violence, but also to pass the message that magic, hope and excitement can still be found between the covers of a hardback novel.

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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem