Saturday, October 06, 2012

A "new" Pamuk from 30 years ago: The Silent House

This may be a strange thing to say about a Nobel laureate who is also among the world’s highest-profile writers (the two things don’t always go together), 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 someone from a city situated on the cusp of Europe and Asia. In the decade since, there has been a line of celebrated works including the great tragi-comic novel Snow, the lovely but rambling The Museum of Innocence and the plaintive memoir-travelogue Istanbul, as well as reappraisals of older books such as The White Castle. Yet, as the appearance of The Silent House reminds us, much still remains to be discovered about Pamuk’s early work.

Published in 1983, Sessiz Ev was among his most popular novels in his own country, but it has taken three decades for its first English translation (by the lecturer and 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 technique that Pamuk would later famously use in My Name is Red, though the structure is more straightforward: voice is not, for instance, given to a corpse (which Pamuk might have chosen to do, since one significant death takes place here), much less to coins or to trees. The story is propelled by the alternating narratives of five principal characters, notably a 90-year-old woman named Fatma and her housekeeper Recep, a middle-aged dwarf, and it centres on a visit by Fatma’s three grandchildren Faruk, Nilgun and Metin; watching the family from the sidelines is a young man named Hasan, who is attracted to Nilgun.

Though the main plot progresses in a neat, chronological way, the five narratives artfully link into each other so that bits of information are withheld from each character in turn (even if it is something as apparently trivial as the proprietorship of an Elvis Presley record), and this creates a web of misinterpretations. Much of the book’s power comes from its gradual revelation of character-defining details: how we come to learn the secrets of the jewellery box that Fatma is so paranoid about, for example, or about her unhappy relationship with her long-deceased husband and her treatment of his illegitimate children. Or how, immediately after an emotionally intense passage involving a visit to a cemetery, we get someone else’s detached, comical perspective on the same thing.

The period depicted here is a very specific, 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 even as they continue to lead relatively privileged lives, and right-wing nationalists who use the threat of violence. And an important subtext here is that the imperatives of youth - the headiness, the hormonal urges - can both work with and clash against ideology; this emerges, most disturbingly, in Hasan’s feelings about Nilgun, whom he idealises but also comes to fear and hate when he discovers she may have Communist leanings. 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 barely lived at all: Fatma, who left Istanbul 70 years earlier and eventually retreated into herself – into the womb of her silent house, haunted by the memory of her doctor husband Selahattin who voiced “blasphemous” thoughts and futilely tried to acquaint her with a larger, more modern world. Like Robinson Crusoe (whose story is alluded to here), she 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 out of habit; the face of an old person who had forgotten why she was annoyed but determined never to forget that she was obliged to be”.

The chapters in her voice are the book’s highlights – a narrative tour de force that builds in intensity as it cuts between her own musings and her grandchildren’s attempts to small-talk with her. Here one also sees an early glimpse 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. At one point one of the grandchildren asks “What did it used to be like around here?” and 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; hearing and not hearing; 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 nature of storytelling, its possibilities and limitations; an account of the writer’s compulsion to create narratives even as he questions their usefulness. The theme recurs constantly, whether in Faruk’s scuppered attempts to seek order in history (“The passion for listening to stories leads us astray every time, dragging us off to a world of fantasy even as we continue to live in one of flesh and blood”) or in Selahattin’s ultimately tragic conceit that his 48-volume encyclopaedia might bring Western “enlightenment” to the antiquated Eastern world. (“I’ll fill that unbelievable gulf in thought in one fell swoop [...] There are millions of poor Muslims chained in the dungeons of darkness, millions of poor benighted slaves waiting for the light of my book!”)


In an essay published in the anthology Other Colours, Pamuk admitted that My Name is Red “was a huge labour, designed as a classic that would speak to the whole country ... 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 he sought to do in his more mature work, while also working at the level of an episodic story. Despite the particularity of its setting and its period (Pamuk himself had hardly been out of his city at that point in his life), it is possible to make universal claims for it.

Among other things, it is a book about aging – one that should appeal to different readers in different ways, depending on the life-stage they are in – and one of the most impressive things about it is that the 30-year-old Pamuk so adeptly caught the inner states of three generations of people, all in their own traps. The thing to wait for now is a translation of a book written when he was even younger – his first published novel Cevdet Bey and His Sons – so that our fascinatingly anachronistic process of discovery can continue.

[Did this review for The Hindu]


  1. Excellent review. Thanks. Checked US release date; it goes on sale here Tuesday.

  2. Loved reading it...

    At the risk of sounding like a non -literary person ( which I am), could I request you to recommend just one book by Mr. Pamuk that a beginner could read?

    Would be happy to know.

  3. Anjali: actually, this one would be quite a decent start, come to think of it. Or you could try Istanbul.

  4. My first Pamuk was 'The Museum of Innocence', which I enjoyed. I found 'My Name is Red' to be a difficult read. From your review I feel this will be a great one. Thanks.