Book Review | Silent House

A recently-translated early work by seminal Turkish author Orhan Pamuk digs deep into the country’s roots, Rose Lapira discovers.

First published in 1983 but only translated from the original Turkish recently, Silent House sheds light on Orhan Pamuk’s evolution as a novelist.
First published in 1983 but only translated from the original Turkish recently, Silent House sheds light on Orhan Pamuk’s evolution as a novelist.

Any book coming from Turkey's Nobel Laureate, Orhan Pamuk, is bound to cause a stir. More so when this does not happen to be a new book, as it was written nearly 30 years ago. Silent House, which was originally published in 1983, has only now been published for the first time in English translation.

Readers who are acquainted with Pamuk's work will find it interesting to compare an early work - this being his second published novel - with his later well known novels like My Name is Red, and Snow. The book serves to shed light on the author's evolution as a novelist for it has many ideas that Pamuk will expand later with great mastery.

Set just before the military coup of 1980, in a resort not far from Istanbul, three siblings make their annual visit to their 90 year old grandmother, Fatma. She lives in a decaying villa built by her physician husband, now long dead. The dwarf Recep, who we are told is the illegitimate son of her husband, looks after her.

Of the three grandchildren, Faruk, the historian, is absorbed in his writings like his father and grandfather before him, and is researching 16h century archives. His sister, Nilgun, is a leftist, reads the daily communist newspaper when she is not reading Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, and spends most of her time on the beach. The younger brother, Metin, fritters away his time in madcap adventures with his rich friends and dreams of selling his grandmother's villa to be able to go to America.

A pivotal character for the eventual tragic development of events is 18-year-old Hasan, Recep's nephew, who goes around with violent militants full of anti-western resentment ready to beat up anyone who does not share their views.

Perhaps the reason why this novel was not translated in English until now was because it was seen as 'parochial', and apart from that, knowledge of Turkish politics of the time is essential to understand what happens in this story. Party politics dominated Turkey before the military coup of 1980, when violence was the order of the day with people being shot and beaten everyday.

This was a time when the country was sharply divided between rightists and leftists, the anti-communists who were in favour of extreme nationalism and the leftists. There is a reference in the book about how the daily paper defined the politics of the person, and being seen reading the wrong paper in the wrong place could have fatal results. People looked up the obituary pages to find out how many from both sides died violent deaths daily.

Politics and history are always on Pamuk's agenda. In Silent House, which is recounted in 32 chapters by five of the main characters, we get a broad cross-section of the culture and politics at the time. As is standard with Pamuk, even in an early work like this, he presents different viewpoints, very convincingly, which are narrated in a stream of consciousness by the different characters, and accompanied by an inner dialogue.

The style can be dense at times, which can make awkward reading. This may be partly due to the not-so-smooth translation by Robert Finn. One misses the brilliant translation of later books by Maureen Freely.

Literature and writing play fundamental roles in Pamuk's work. In Silent House, Faruk is absorbed in his writing as was his father and grandfather before him.  Fatma's husband was writing an encyclopedia on everything, and wanted in particular to explain the difference between east and west and the non- existence of God.

Pamuk believed in the importance books play in making a difference to one's understanding of life. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in 2006, he talked about the meaning of literature and about how much he was indebted to his father's love for books and to the literature he had read when he was young. 

It is significant that Pamuk ends Silent House with the grandmother reminiscing about the time when as a child she treasured a copy of Robinson Crusoe. Talking to herself, she says: 'You can't start out again in life, that's a carriage ride that you only take once, but with a book in your hand, no matter how confusing and perplexing it might be, once you've finished, you can always go to the beginning; if you like you can read it through again, in order to figure out what you couldn't understand before, in order to understand life.'

At times, when talking about books, I find that some people are quick to point out that they have no time for fiction. But I fully concur with Orhan Pamuk who believes 'literature to be the most valuable hoard that humanity has gathered in its quest to understand itself'.