Faber & Faber
(Translation from the Turkish by Robert Finn)
REVIEW BY: Aly Verbaan
CRACKING the spine of Orhan Pamuk’s second novel, Silent House, we are required to read through the overlay of time and translation: Silent House was written 30 years ago when Pamuk was 31, writing frenetically on the back of two military coups d’état and the proxy wars of America and the then USSR that so divided Turkey’s left and right.
Silent House precedes the Pamuk opus that English-language readers are likely to be familiar with: The White Castle; The Black Book; My Name is Red; Snow; The Museum of Innocence.
How, then, should we judge Silent House? Should we view Pamuk as a writer then trying to get into his stride, or should we, perhaps unfairly, hold Silent House up to the same light as his later, more honed works?
Set over a week in the summer of 1980, with Turkey on the brink of a military coup, Faruk, Nilgün and Metin pay their annual visit to their 90-year-old grandmother, Fatma, at her decaying mansion in Cennethisar, a one-time fishing village now increasingly given over to trendy resorts and modish tourists.
The story is told through the rotating stream-of-consciousness perspectives of five characters: Faruk, corpulent and inebriated, an amateur in the study of history; Metin, an underpaid tutor who dreams of making a fortune in America; and their sister Nilgün, a dilettantish left-winger. The Miss Havisham-like Fatma is waited on by Recep, the illegitimate son of her dead husband. He serves her loyally despite her incessant maltreatment; he is a dwarf — perhaps intended by Pamuk to embody the traditional feudal subordination of Turkey’s oppressed.
Fatma is plagued by the memory of her late husband Selahattin, a secular liberal who gave up his medical practice to work on a never-to-be-completed “encyclopedia of everything” that he believed would enlighten the benighted East about Western thought and science. In one of several soliloquies, we learn that Selahattin made Fatma sell her jewellery to fund his attempt at writing the encyclopedia: “… so that the East, which has been slumbering for centuries, will wake up”. To the dismay of the God-fearing Fatma, Selahattin’s intention with the encyclopedia was to disprove the existence of God. In this way Silent House examines the role of literature and writing in a tortured society, and now we learn that Faruk is following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps in working on a manuscript that will seek to “explain Turkey and the universe”.
When her mind is in the present, Fatma lives in paranoid fear that Recep will reveal to her grandchildren that he is one of Selahattin’s two illegitimate children.
Hasan, the son of Selahattin’s other lovechild, is a high-school dropout who runs with fascists, collecting protection money, daubing walls in graffiti. Vague, full of misdirected yearning, Hasan is soon fixated on Nilgün (they don’t know that they share a grandfather) and dreams up elaborate plans for them to meet, but when Nilgün spurns him, his reaction lays down the framework for a climacteric event later in the novel.
Hasan imagines piloting a revolution, while Metin dreams of escaping to America, returning victorious. Both answer rejection with violence. Hasan, in a prescient vision, looks neither to the West nor the East or even Turkey as his pointer, but to Islam. He runs with a group of politicised young men whose catch-phrase question is: “Are you first a Muslim or a Turk?” and who persecute the local newsagents, destroying their copies of the communist newspaper and tearing down pinups of women. To these agitators, an Elvis Presley LP in a Turk’s possession is proof of treason.
Pamuk captures the melancholy of towns that used to be ports, the nebulous world of beach shops, insalubrious taverns, Anatolian nights where the indigenous serve the entitled.
Meanwhile, Nilgün sunbathes, reading Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons — a novel that pits nihilism against romanticism — underscoring Silent House’s tense mood of incompatible doctrines.
As with Pamuk’s other works, Silent House is characterised by an uncertainty or erosion of identity precipitated by the conflict between Occidental and Oriental values; and tradition and secularism. It is disquieting, and at times outright alarming, but never gratuitous either in plot or character.
It is said that Turkish is an absurdly difficult language to translate into English. Maureen Freely, who has translated many of Pamuk’s books (but not this one), compares it to “carrying a bunch of groceries around without a grocery bag”. The country’s language revolution of the 1930s, which sought to rid Turkish of Arabic and Persian influences, effectively gutted Turkish vocabulary, and many writers since that time, Pamuk included, have seen it as their duty to reforge the language anew.
It’s hard to say, then, how much of the novel’s frequent clumsiness is due to Pamuk’s then-unhoned skills as a writer and how much to Robert Finn’s translation. It has a few of Pamuk’s strengths, but its real interest may be to bear witness to how a fledgling writer may, stutteringly, grow into a Nobel Prize laureate.
Although Silent House is an engaging story that deserves to be read in and of itself, it is sadly afflicted by its publication after the writer’s more mature works, as well as its amateurish translation. The novel certainly sheds light on his evolution as a novelist; but those new to his work would do best to start elsewhere.
This review first appeared in the Cape Times in January 2013.