December 23, 2012 by markstani
Orhan Pamuk’s Silent House, translated into English for the first time this year having originally been published in Turkey almost thirty years ago, is, in my opinion, a novel to admire rather than love.
Pamuk’s literary greatness can hardly be over-stated: he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006, and is considered a giant both in his native land and beyond. Hand in hand with such plaudits, I suppose, comes the expectation of a weighty, complicated read.
‘Silent House’ is the story of a family drawn together in a crumbling mansion in a fishing village turned fledgling holiday resort. It is the late 1970s, the fascists and communists are spilling blood and the 1980 military coup is imminent. It’s a fascinating time, and the east-west struggle at the heart of the argument is clearly ripe for novel writing: see Izzet Celasin’s brilliant Black Sky, Black Sea, also published this year.
Pamuk’s novel centres around a practically bed-ridden ninety-year-old widow, Fatma, her idealistic doctor husband long gone; her servant Recep, a dwarf and the doctor’s illegitimate son; and her grandchildren who have undertaken an annual summer visit they clearly view as something of a burden. Each of them, along with Recep’s nephew Hasan, combine to present a microcosm of the country at the time: Faruk, a failed historian and borderline alcoholic; Nilgun, whose sympathies lie with the left; the materialistic Metin; and Hasan, increasingly lured to the nationalist cause.
In alternating chapters, Recep, Faruk, Metin and Hasan present their own version of events that summer as their beliefs slowly, inevitably begin to clash, while the passages narrated by Fatma hark back to what she considers a golden age of respect and religious courtesy; and to a time when her husband’s tireless quest to prove that science triumphed in a Godless world nurtured the schisms that now exist within her family and, by extension, in Turkey itself.
Fine, then listen to this, the most important article in my encyclopedia: listen, I’ve just finished it in the new script. From the article on bilgi – knowledge – under the letter B in the Latin alphabet, listen: The source of all knowledge is experimentation… nothing that is unproven by experimentation or that cannot be proved by experimentation can be deemed valid… Here is the crux of all our scientific knowledge, this sentence, in an instant it lays aside the whole problem of the existence of God, because this is a problem that cannot be proven by experimentation, the ontological proof is merely so much scholastic blather, divinity is a concept only for metaphysicians to play with, there is, I’m afraid, no place for God in the world of apples and pears and Fatmas… ha, ha, ha! Do you understand, Fatma, your God is no more!
As you can probably deduce from the excerpt, it’s not an easy read, though ‘The Silent House’ is surprisingly gripping in parts, in particular its third quarter, when it becomes apparent that Metin, Nilgun and Hasan are on collision course. To me, it is the story of this trio that is most arresting, and ought to be at the heart of the novel: as it was, some of the other strands felt a little over-bearing at times, and in the case of Faruk, frankly burdensome.
Ironically, the one character I felt could have brought most to this book was the one whose narrative voice it lacked: the enigmatic Nilgun, whose habits included upsetting the traditionalists by bathing in the sea each morning and – horror of horrors! – buying a left-leaning newspaper. There are reasons which will become apparent for her absence, but still, by the end, her character felt a little under-explored, and what should have been the novel’s defining act seemed to some extent shoe-horned in as an after-thought.
Nevertheless, Pamuk presents a powerful, intricately detailed account of Turkey at a time of great change. It’s a good enough book to make me want to go and search out some of his others. I’m glad I read it, but I’m inclined to think the reason it took so long to be translated into English is that it’s not quite Orhan Pamuk at his best.