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.
Echoes of Calvino and Borges are evident in The White Castle (1985), Pamuk’s first book to be translated into English, in 1990. That year, The Black Book was published in Turkey, where its explorations of identity and interpretation of abstract ideas proved contentious. An English translation followed four years later. Mystery, another favourite Pamuk device, is at its heart.
In Snow (2002, English translation 2004), Ka, a poet and former political exile, returns to Turkey to investigate a suicide epidemic among young women. Another theme is the rise of Islam in Turkey. Pamuk’s handling of this issue drew harsh criticism from Islamic quarters and also from westernised Turks.
His core readers expect clever games, wordplay, the prominence of objects, and cultural cross-referencing from Pamuk, who, even as early as Silent House, is already showing his fondness for walk-on parts; a character mentions: “Orhan’s supposedly writing a novel.”
In The New Life (1994, English translation 1997), a university student becomes obsessed with a magical book. Its secrets lead him on an odyssey across Turkey. As before, there is the element of metaphysical mystery. Silent House by contrast considers the complex nature of family secrets that are not so much secret as concealed.
A radical change
At no point does Pamuk directly seek sympathy for Grandmother Fatma. Yet despite her Miss Havisham-like regrets and acidic responses, he succeeds in presenting her vivid memories as a way of understanding Fatma’s rage at losing an adult son and daughter-in-law as well as her duplicitous husband. When asked, “What did it used to be like around here?” she is lost in her thoughts and can barely reply: “How can I tell you that this used to be one garden after another, what beautiful gardens, where are they now, there was no one around and in those years, before the devil took your grandfather, early in the evenings, he’d say, Fatma, let’s go for a walk . . .”
But Fatma’s marriage radically changed her life. Her husband’s political views caused the couple to be banished from Istanbul to the fishing village and former resort about 75km from Istanbul. He then began a life’s project, the writing of an encyclopaedia of everything. Its central thesis was, to Fatma’s enduring horror, the disproving of God’s existence. The doctor was a thinker but also a drunk, as is their grandson, Faruk, a depressed and recently divorced historian who is dithering about writing a book explaining Turkey in relation to the universe. Also a narrator and given to calmly musing, he is the eldest of the three siblings. His apathy is palpable.
Faruk’s sister, Nilgun, is beautiful and idealistic, openly reading a communist daily while she sunbathes. She attracts the obsessive, ultimately dangerous attention of young Hasan, Recep’s nephew and a nationalist. This strand of the story is developed with commendable restraint.
Throughout the novel, written during the aftermath of the military coup that shook Turkey in 1980, Pamuk keeps a tight rein on his political intent. Despite this early caution, the Turkish authorities have increasingly monitored Pamuk’s output since the publication of Snow, especially in the wake of his 2005 comments on the Armenian massacres. This may explain why western publishers were slow to promote Silent House, a work that so clearly deserves a wide readership. His first novel, Cevdet Bey and His Sons (1982), is yet to be translated into English. Ironically considering his political relevance, Pamuk said recently that the novel he expects to be remembered for is The Museum of Innocence (2008, English translation 2009), a love story set in Istanbul.
Aside from the politics, Silent House is an unusually mature second novel, and Pamuk gives his five narrators, including the two young teenage boys, Hassan and Metin, convincingly individual voices.
In contrast with the respective narratives of Recep, Grandmother and Faruk are the markedly bold, stream-of-conscious offerings from Hasan, a disgruntled thug and high-school dropout who rather chillingly suggests the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Clever, conceited Metin, meanwhile, his wallet fat from giving maths grinds in the city, dreams of fleeing to the US. There is an inspired comic set piece in which Metin, having been robbed by Hasan’s intimidating associates, then begs Hasan to help him push his brother Faruk’s stalled car back to the house.
Dark, often disturbing, yet peculiarly engaging, Silent House charms and saddens. Fatma staring at death, concedes: “You can’t start out again in life . . . but with a book in your hand . . . once you have finished it, you can always go back to the beginning.” With Silent House, English-language readers now have the opportunity to experience early Pamuk; it has been well worth the wait.