“Silent House” by Orhan Pamuk (Knopf, 334 pages, $26.95)
Turkish novelist and screenwriter Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize in 2006. His works have sold more than 11 million copies in 60 languages. Many of his novels, including “Snow” and “My Name Is Red,” as well as some of his non-fiction works, have been translated into English. But “Silent House,” his second novel, first published in 1983, is just now out in English.
Pamuk’s narratives are complex and often deal with the conflict between Eastern and Western values. Most are set in Turkey, whether contemporary or historical, and reflect issues and conflicts within that nation.
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“Silent House,” though not as complex as later works, is set during a tense time in Turkey before the military coup of 1980. The point of view of its 32 titled chapters alternate among an array of characters who come together in Cennethisar, a former fishing village near Istanbul.
Fatma is a mostly bedridden widow who resides in an old mansion she owns. She has lived there for decades and recalls her husband, an idealistic doctor who died years earlier. Waiting on her is her servant, Recep, a dwarf and the doctor’s illegitimate son. They depend on each other but are not friendly to one another.
Fatma’s three grandchildren — her son also died years before — make their annual summer visit and at one point go with her to visit her husband and son’s graves. They do not share her Islamic faith but go more out of duty.
Faruk, the eldest, is a budding alcoholic and obsessed with history. He visits the local archive and tries to write a coherent history. His sister, Nilgün, is a leftist who likes to go to the beach each morning in this resort town. Metin, the youngest, is in high school and hangs out with his wealthier schoolmates while fantasizing about going to America, if he can only talk his grandmother into selling the house, moving into an apartment and giving her grandchildren the profit.
The other character we hear from is Hasan, Recep’s nephew, a high school dropout who has fallen in with right-wing nationalists and carries an unrequited love for Nilgün.
Fatma, the grandmother, spends sleepless hours in the “silent house,” which is falling apart, ruminating about her atheist husband, who sold her jewelry, piece by piece, in order to pay for his project of writing an encyclopedia. She inhales “the smell of old age that rises up, and in the alligator darkness [her] little dry hand fishes for [her] handkerchief and [she dabs her] poor dry eyes.” She tells herself, “I’ve spent my whole life in pain” and looks forward to death.
The younger folk all long for a different life, for something to change. Faruk drinks and thinks of his wife, who left him, and calls out “desperately for someone or something, as if trapped in a nightmare that [he] can’t wake up from and escape.” Later, he thinks: “I wished my whole consciousness could be erased. I wanted to escape from my own awareness, to wander freely in a world outside my mind.”
Hasan, the son of the doctor’s other bastard son, feels the separation from his cousins, is in love with Nilgün and wants to impress his fellow nationalists. He says in his mind: “I don’t know yet what it is that I’m going to do, but you’re all going to be amazed.” Yet he, too, ends up alone.
Recep, who seems the most content of them all, nevertheless must endure taunts from others about his size. He reflects: “I sometimes think it would be nice to have a friend I could be silent with.”
Pamuk deftly combines these characters’ internal struggles with the political turmoil going on around them. One character, referring to politics, says, “No matter where you go, it grabs you by the collar.”
After a tragedy, Fatma recalls her childhood, when she found solace in a book, because “no matter how confusing and perplexing it might be, once you’ve finished it, you can always go back to the beginning; if you like, you can read it through again, in order to figure out what you couldn’t understand before.”
“Silent House” is not Pamuk’s best work, and without a better understanding of Turkey’s turmoil in 1980, it may be difficult to understand. Nevertheless, his characters’ struggles grab you by the collar and make you care about them and about life’s too-quick passing.