A refreshing trip to the early house
FICTION:Published in Turkey in 1983, Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk’s second novel has only just come out in English – but it was worth waiting for
Silent House, By Orhan Pamuk, translated by Robert Finn, Faber and Faber, 333pp, £18.99
International literary or commercial success, or both, often encourages publishers to revisit an author’s backlist in search of neglected work that will generate critical interest and, with it, large sales. There can be no accusations of cynicism, only celebration about the belated English-language translation of Silent House, the second novel by the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. First published in Turkey in 1983, it is a powerful, assured and engaging multiple-voiced narrative. It provides exciting insights into the subsequent career of a consistently original novelist.
Silent House has an uncharacteristically simple plot for Pamuk, the 2006 Nobel literature laureate, who enjoys narrative complexity. The action follows three members of a family, long settled in Istanbul, on the annual visit to their bitter old grandmother, Fatma, who still lives in the increasingly dilapidated house of the title. The ancient widow is tended by Recep, a kindly “dwarf”, who is one of two sons her late doctor husband fathered with a local village woman. Fatma is guilty of ongoing verbal cruelty to Recep, whom she barely tolerates. Even worse, she once beat Ismail, his younger brother, so viciously when he was a child that he was left crippled for life.
Yet Recep has the patience of a saint, as quickly becomes obvious. He tells his story with gentle humour as well as a slight weariness, adroitly conveyed by Pamuk, whose feel for characterisation and dialogue throughout the interior monologues is impressive.
Aware that he looks different and that children always stare at him, Recep is touchingly philosophical. He is one of five narrators and, as the least self-absorbed, is the most reliable and sympathetic. It is he who sets the scene and leaves no doubt as to the defining unhappiness that has stalked the family to which he tenuously belongs. He is the presiding intelligence of a cohesively executed novel that never relinquishes its extraordinary control.
Pamuk won the 2003 International Impac Dublin Literary Award for My Name is Red (1998), which was published in English in 2001. It was the fourth of his novels to be translated and takes the form of a literary historical thriller. Most importantly, it consolidated Pamuk’s central preoccupation, the cultural tensions of East versus West, which continue to determine Turkish society. Pamuk approaches this theme with an intellectual rigour marked by the metaphysical influence of two of his major stylistic mentors, Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges.