Silent House by Orhan Pamuk (trans. by Robert Finn). Vintage. 352pp.
In September 1980, a month after the third military coup in the history of the Turkish Republic, I arrived in London to study as an exchange student. I was living with a family friend who rented out the empty rooms of his enormous house in High Gate to students from the Pitman School of English. At the time, Derek’s lodgers were Turks, all high-level managers from the Ottoman Bank. I imagined their country as an exotic land of pashas, whirling dervishes and men in red fezzes who ravished women. Living at Derek’s cured me of my ignorant notions. Rauf and Haldun, my housemates, were worldly, urbane, perfect gentlemen who had no desire to ravish anyone, let alone me. I immediately felt a deep connection to them; we were kindred spirits who loved art, music, and culture. One thing about them puzzled me, though: they seemed preoccupied, while we were having so much fun. Little did I know that while we were enjoying ourselves in London, back in Turkey the Generals had taken control of the civilian government. For a third time in the Republic’s short history, the door of democracy had snapped shut. The Turks lived under marshal law for three long years. The Constitution was suspended. The opposition was imprisoned. Many people were executed.
After reading Orhan Pamuk’s Silent House, I have gained a sense of the agony my friends must have felt as they helplessly watched the events from the western side of the Bosporus. The novel, published in Turkish in 1983, serves as Pamuk’s meditation on the impact of the coup on his homeland. It shows that no matter how hard Mustafa Kemal Atatürk tried to drag Turkey into modernity, the past, as William Faulkner once observed, is never dead. It’s not even past. Pamuk reveals how each generation has had to pay dearly for their parents’ inability to reconcile their imperial past with their modern aspirations to be citizens of Europe, while also probing the sizable inferiority complex that has resulted because of their second-class status vis-à-vis the West.
Pamuk’s second novel, but only now translated into English, Silent House chronicles the Darvinoğlu family’s decline, a saga that spans most of the twentieth century. In terms of style and theme, the book is of a piece with Faulkner’s works that illustrate the South’s dissolution and decay after the Civil War. In a 2012 New York Times interview, Pamuk acknowledged the great debt, “all Third World writers owe to Faulkner, who showed [them] that [their] subject matter may be provincial, away from the centers of the West and politically troubled, yet one can write about it in a very personal and inventive way and be read all over the world.”
Faulkner’s literary spirit haunts the dusty, cobweb-covered rooms in Pamuk’s eponymous silent house. When the wind blows through the chinks in the masonry, we can even hear the skeletons of the Bundrens’, Compsons’, Snopes’, and Sartoris’ Turkish cousins rattling in the Darvinoğlu’s closets in their decrepit ancestral villa. Cennethisar, once a sleepy fishing village under the Ottomans, a remote outpost from Istanbul, by 1980, had been transformed into a luxurious beach resort for the nation’s Westernized capitalist elite. To tell the tale, Pamuk employs Faulkner’s technique of alternating stream-of-consciousness narratives of the novel’s main protagonists, here, five members of the official and unofficial lines of the Darvinolğu family tree: Recep, Fatma, Faruk, Metin, and Hasan. Their conflicting narrative views provide windows into the violent political tensions that had once again erupted among the different social and economic strata of Turkish society on the eve of the 1980 coup.
Silent House opens in May of that year as the ninety-year old Fatma awaits the visit of her adult grandchildren from Istanbul. She is the family’s matriarch, lonely mistress of Silent House and its failed dreams. It is primarily through the broken prism of Fatma’s consciousness that we learn the family’s history, its cycles of tragedy and loss. For almost seventy years she has lived confined within the villa’s crumbling walls, hording her mementos out of bitterness after her husband Selâhattin Bey’s death in 1942. Confined to bed, Fatma’s inner life revolves around rehashing the shortcomings of her deceased husband, a Europeanized medical doctor and political dreamer whose worldview clashed completely with Fatma’s traditional upbringing as the daughter of a prominent Ottoman Turkish Istanbul family. Fatma blames the failure of her marriage on Selâhattin’s passion for the ideals of the European Enlightenment. In addition to turning a promising medical career to dust, Selâhattin’s radical republican politics got both he and Fatma exiled from Istanbul, the cultural center of the Empire. At first Selâhattin plans to go to Europe, but his inertia gets them only as far as the provincial backwater Cennethisar. On an isolated patch of land he erects his great mansion with money from Fatma’s dowry. He puts out his shingle, but the villagers fear his foreign ways, and no one comes. The shingle is left to gather dust in a corner of the house among the other mementos.
Despite his liberal ideals, Selâhattin is the undisputed master of Silent House, treating Fatma with contempt and even forcing her to live under the same roof as his mistress, a poor, uneducated village girl, and their illegitimate sons. Outside she becomes stone; inside, Fatma’s rage and powerlessness transforms her into a vindictive harpy. She turns her rage on her husband’s illegitimate sons, crippling them with her beatings. She also watches as her beloved son, Doğan, slowly succumbs to the same fatal illness of his father—alcohol spiked with idealism. Once Selâhattin is dead, Fatma takes her revenge by burning his life’s work, an unfinished “encyclopedia of everything.” Then, for the next forty years, she replays the past so can have the last say. The disappointing neglect by her grandchildren proves what a hollow victory Fatma has won. The old woman thinks,
They’ll come tomorrow. Hello, hello! Many happy returns. They’ll kiss my hand and laugh. The hair on their heads looks funny when they bend down to kiss my hand. How are you, how are you, Grandmother? What can someone like me say? I’m alive, I’m waiting. Tombs, dead people. Come on, sleep, come.
Faruk, Nilgün, and Metin show no great attachment to their matriarch; they’ve made the annual trek from Istanbul to the family manse only out of obligation. They’re Istanbullus who have lived in the City since their father, Doğan, dumped them on their maternal aunt so that he could return to Cennethisar a disillusioned and defeated man. Doğan’s own inability to overcome the past endows his children with a legacy of helpless inferiority.
Faruk, the oldest grandchild and an associate professor, seems destined to drink himself to a premature death. He searches for meaning in the Ottoman manuscripts he discovers in the government archive in Gebze. His interest turns into an obsession, and he soon aspires to write “a book with no beginning and no end,” a book:
to encompass, with no attention to relative value or importance, every piece of information I could discover about Gebze and its environs in [the seventeenth] century . . . I won’t let a single document escape my eye, every single event will take its place, one by one. Someone reading my book from cover to cover will during those weeks and months end up able to glimpse that cloudlike mass of events that I managed to perceive while working here, and like me he’ll murmur excitedly: This is history, this is history and life . . .
But the enormity of this ambition for “this crazy plan” makes him “recoil in horror.”
As Faruk hatches his plans in the archive, Metin, his younger brother, prefers hanging with his upscale society friends. A materialist, he longs for the privileged lifestyle of his prep school classmates, the spoiled Westernized offspring of Istanbul’s capitalist elite. Metin envies them their imported sports cars and social status, embodied by Ceylan, the wealthy Istanbul girl with whom he is infatuated, and who doesn’t know he’s alive. Metin looks down on his family, his sister “a typical lefty,” his brother a fat drunk. He hates his grandmother, too, because she refuses to sell the house to sell the house in Cennethisar so he can go to America to study.
While love is mostly in short supply in Silent House, it come from the strangest of sources: the children’s uncle Recep, whose narration opens the story, and Nilgün, the only female descendent from Fatma and Selahâttin’s union, whose inner-voice Pamuk never provides. Recep, the lowly dwarf, who never speaks unless spoken to, who doesn’t even dare to join in, has not let the past completely cripple his soul, even though he has every right to hate Fatma because her vicious blows stunted his growth. When the local punks in the coffeehouse laugh at Recep because of a newspaper article about a certain “Dwarves’ House in Uskudar,” Recep maintains his dignity. He tells Cemil, the coffeehouse owner, that he isn’t upset with the young men because of his stature but because “people can be nasty enough to make fun of a fifty-five-year-old dwarf.” Still, it is telling that the tale of the house, allegedly built by the Sultan’s wife who “loved her dwarves so much, [her] excessive affection occupie[d] a special place in the history of the Harem,” captivates Recep’s imagination, the way the archive captivates Faruk’s. The house, whose historical existence cannot be proven for sure, represents the possibility that even a lowly dwarf like Recep might find unconditional love from a great lady and a little room of his own.
Nilgün is also a sympathetic character, though Pamuk never lets us penetrate into her psyche, and she remains a cipher, the way all of Pamuk’s young, beautiful, unattainable women, sadly, are. What we do know is that, of all the Darvinoğlus, she has the most potential to elude her family’s tragic fate. She is a bright and sensitive university student who, like the other members of her family, loves Western literature and learning. Unlike her siblings she has true compassion for the lower classes. While Faruk and Metin don’t care a fig for politics, Nilgün has inherited her father’s political idealism and sense of social justice. However, once again, theory proves more appealing than the practice: Nilgün’s detached idealism blinds her to the fact that she is the object of Hasan’s romantic obsession. When Hasan finally confronts Nilgün about his romantic feelings, she is horrified. She rebuffs him like the upper-class girl she is because the young man’s brute force terrifies her. Hasan continues to cling desperately to his romantic illusions, but it is too late. Nilgün, the one Darvinoğlu who had the most potential, pays the ultimate price for her predecessors’ inability to reunite the fragments of the family’s fractured soul.
In its historical sweep, literary ambition, and complexity, this early work shows the enormous promise of Pamuk’s gifts as a writer. After having read this novel, I feel a more profound connection to Haldun and Rauf, whose lives touched mine so many years ago. Yet there is something missing in this Turkish variation on As I Lay Dying; sometime the voices, especially Hasan’s, the one Pamuk devotes the most chapters to, tend to ring hollow. Both he and, to some degree, Fatma, feel like caricatures, instead of fully fleshed out beings. As a result, the tension suffers and the plot lapses into melodrama and cliché, unworthy of such a master storyteller. Nonetheless, Pamuk’s failure at crafting a female point of view with Fatma is still preferable to his elision of Nilgün’s voice, who never even gets a chance to live.
To my mind, this book and Pamuk’s subsequent works aren’t so much Turkish history and politics as celebrations of the transformative power of art. As Pamuk once revealingly said, “I care about a sentence.” In the end, it is the text more than the characters that matters in Silent House. Faruk’s quest to find a story, to narrate his life, identity and redemption, reveals the potential that all great fictions have to offer us, the freedom to discover new manifestations of ourselves in the dusty manuscripts of Borges’s Library of Babel. Pamuk’s love for texts has far more power than his romantic obsession to rack up trinkets for his Museum of Innocence. After all, it’s better to live within the pages of a book than be “formulated, sprawling on a pin.” If Pamuk’s third book, The White Castle (published in English translation more than a decade before its predecessor) is any indication, the writer sensed this for himself. Now that we have a translation of Silent House, we know that Faruk found the story he needed, and we readers, needed; the never-ending tale spun out of an imagined historical record in fictions’ infinite variations on identity and being. The White Castle, dedicated to “Nilgün Darvinoglu, a loving sister (1961-1980),” with its preface by Faruk, is that tale, A Turk of My Acquaintance, that “new life.”
Deborah Helen Garfinkle’s translation The Old Man’s Verses: Poems by Ivan Diviš was nominated for the 2008 Northern California Book Award. This year, she was awarded an NEA Translation Fellowship and a Translation Grant from the PEN Center USA for her work on Worm-Eaten Time: Poems from a Life under Normalization by Pavel Šrut 1968-1989. She is currently revising her intellectual history of the Czech Surrealist movement, The Surrealist Bridge: Czech Surrealism’s Interwar Experiment 1934-1938.
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