This translation of an almost three-decade-old book shows early signs of Pamuk the stylistic experimenter.
This may seem a strange thing to say about one of the world’s highest-profile writers, but Orhan Pamuk’s career is still — for the English-language reader, at least — a jigsaw with missing pieces. Pamuk became internationally famous when the English translation of his brilliant My Name is Red, a metaphysical murder mystery set in the Ottoman Empire, was published in 2001 — a year when the Anglophone world had special reason to become interested in literature about the differences between Eastern and Western thought (written by a novelist from a city situated on the cusp of Europe and Asia). In the decade since, there has been a line of celebrated books including the great tragic-comic novel Snow and the lovely but rambling The Museum of Innocence. Yet, as the publication of The Silent House reminds us, much remains to be discovered about his early work.
Published in 1983, Sessiz Ev was among Pamuk’s most popular novels in his own country, but it has taken three decades for its first English translation (by lecturer-diplomat Robert Finn) to reach us. This would have made The Silent House an important event almost independent of its literary merits; happily, no such concessions are needed because this is a powerful, multifaceted book with many pointers to what lay ahead for its author. Set in a small seaside town not far from Istanbul, it employs the multi-narrator device that Pamuk would later use in My Name is Red, though the structure here is more straightforward (voice is not, for instance, given to coins or trees). The story is propelled by the alternating narratives of five characters, notably a 90-year-old woman named Fatma and her housekeeper Recep, a middle-aged dwarf, and centres on a visit by Fatma’s grandchildren Faruk, Nilgun and Metin; watching the family from the sidelines is a young man named Hasan, who is attracted to Nilgun.
Politically charged events
Though the plot progresses in a neat, chronological way, the narratives artfully link into each other so that bits of information are withheld in turn (even if it is something as apparently trivial as the proprietorship of an Elvis Presley record). Much of the book’s power derives from how it gradually reveals character-defining details: how we come to learn, for example, the secrets of the jewellery box that Fatma is so paranoid about, or about her unhappy relationship with her long-deceased husband.
The period in question is a politically charged time in modern Turkish history, which would culminate in the military coup of September 1980. Though these politics are not explicitly addressed, they cast a shadow over the characters, especially the young people – divided between bored kids who fantasise about going to America, revolutionary manqués who denounce money while continuing to lead relatively privileged lives, and right-wing nationalists who threaten violence. The subtext that the imperatives of youth can both work with and clash against ideology emerges, most disturbingly, in Hasan’s feelings about Nilgun, whom he idealises but also comes to fear and hate. More than once, I was reminded of other conflicted young people in Pamuk’s work, such as the boys in Snow who begin weeping when they suspect they might really be atheists.
The many possible futures of these youngsters are set against the long life of a woman who has retreated into herself — into the womb of her silent house, haunted by the memory of a husband who voiced “blasphemous” thoughts and futilely tried to acquaint her with a modern world. Like Robinson Crusoe (whose story is alluded to here), Fatma lives as if on a private island, with Recep as a faithful Friday who understands her well enough to know that she “frowned to show her disgust, and her face stayed that way... [she] had forgotten why she was annoyed but determined never to forget that she was obliged to be”.
Her narrative is the book’s highlight; a tour de force that builds in intensity as it cuts between her own musings and her grandchildren’s attempts to small-talk. Here one sees early signs of Pamuk the stylistic experimenter: there is stream of consciousness and there are traces of the meta-fictional duality that he would later bring to more abstract novels such as The New Life. When one of the grandchildren asks “What did it used to be like around here?” Fatma’s narrative continues: “I’m lost in my own thoughts and sorrows and I don’t hear what you’re saying, so how can I tell you that this used to be one garden after another, what beautiful gardens, where are they now...” She is both absent and present; participating in the current moment and obsessively reliving her past.
Here and elsewhere, The Silent House is — like much of Pamuk’s other work — a self-reflective examination of the possibilities and limitations of storytelling. In an essay, Pamuk wrote that My Name is Red “was a huge labour, designed as a classic... I wanted the whole country to read it and each to find himself reflected in it; I wanted to evoke the cruelty of history and the beauty of a world now lost.” Was he less self-conscious when he wrote The Silent House, and is it possible to suggest that this is to its advantage? I think so. This book has thematic complexity, raw skill and verve; it achieves many of the things Pamuk sought to do in his more mature work. What one now awaits is a translation of his first novel Cevdet Bey and His Sons, so that our fascinatingly anachronistic process of discovery can continue.
Silent House; Orhan Pamuk, Translated from the Turkish by Robert Finn, Hamish Hamilton, Rs.599.