Predictably unpredictable

Remembering Serge Gainsbourg on the anniversary of his birth.

Elegant and tactless, charmingly "ugly", often inopportune like a bad joke coming too late, Lucien Ginsburg was born on 2 April 1928 in Paris to Russian-Jewish parents. "I was born under a lucky star ... a yellow one," he once ironically remarked referring to the star of David he had to wear on his arm as a kid when Paris opened its doors to the nightmare of Nazism.

It was a live performance by Boris Vian that allegedly inspired the singer-to-be: Vian's idiosyncratic provocations and ironic cynicism, Serge Gainsbourg later confessed, were a great influence on his decision to take to the piano in (un)popular fashion. Unapologetically improper, Gainsbourg survived his fame through constant and unpredictable innovation. From smoky jazz bars to symphonic pop, from "le yéyé" to roots dub, passing by Nazi rock and rap, the restless trajectory he drew underscores his inability to conform.

Recently commemorated with a lame and derivative biopic, Monsieur Gainsbourg himself, true to his insubordinate curiosity and obtrusive genius, traversed le septième art on his own, unique, terms. Besides sound-tracking more than 50 films, whose scores often outshined their not exactly memorable visual counterpart, Gainsbourg briefly stood behind the camera. In 1976, borrowing the title from his international hit Je T'Aime Moi Non Plus, he staged an anomalous tale of uncompromising love. Reminiscent of the stiff acting and wooden mise-en-scène of Paul Morrisey's films, Je T'Aime is a bizarre sex-western of startling profundity.

A gay garbage truck driver (Joe D'Alessandro) falls in love with a boyish looking waitress (Jane Birkin) but can only love her via her posterior. While the song had desecrated the trite clichés of love songs with the steamy chorus "I love you, me neither" and scandalised with its impudent groans, the film functions almost in an inverse fashion. Through what at first sight may seem a gratuitous and idiotic narrative device, Gainsbourg composes the ultimate romance, transcending the barriers of gender to celebrate the universality of the noblest sentiment. As the fornicating couple has it: "the important is not where you put it, the important is to love."

A final episode worth considering: Forgotten until 2002, when the Parisian Radio Communauté Juive broadcasted it for the first time, "Le sable et le Soldat" was commissioned by the cultural attaché of the Israeli embassy to the French singer. Written in 1967 with the six-day war against Egypt looming on the horizon, the song is a hymn to the Tsahal, the Israeli army that would shortly after crush Nasser's forces. The lyric runs: "I will defend the sand of the Promised Land against all enemies/the Goliaths from the pyramids will back down in front of the star of David/I will defend the sand of Israel."

Serge Gainsbourg in 1984. Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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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