Silent House by Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk’s seventh novel to be published in the English-speaking world, Silent House, is in fact the author’s second novel, first published in Turkish in 1983. It is a wonder that this translation has taken so long to emerge in the English language given Mr.Pamuk’s immense popularity throughout the Anglophonic world. Not that I’m complaining, it’s just that I enjoy his work so consistently it makes me a little impatient for more. Perhaps some Turkish lessons are in order.

Set at the height of the tensions which came about as a result of the armed Left/Right conflicts of the 1970’s, and just prior to the military coup of 1980, Pamuk’s novel gives us an oblique view of these events from multiple perspectives featuring six narrators.

The novel opens from the perspective of Fatma, an aged widow living the life of a recluse. She is embittered by her life experiences which she obsessively recalls with self-masochistic relish. Fatma has been destroyed by an unsuitable marriage to an eccentric alcoholic Doctor, the premature demise of her son, and her own guilt. As her story progresses we learn more about her past and marriage to Dr.Selahattin, a man whose political activities result in him and his wife being exiled from Istanbul and forced to move to a house in the backwater of Gebze where she still  resides.

As we watch the marriage unfold we observe Selahattin’s increasing obsession with Western enlightenment thinking. His preoccupation takes physical form in an overly ambitious ‘encyclopaedia of everything’ which he spends his every free moment compulsively composing. It is his belief that when this hulking tome is published its contents will ‘awaken the East from its slumber’. Deprived of patients due to the fear he creates in the surrounding village with his strident atheism, Selahattin spends his days writing, drinking and ‘educating’ his wife who does not share his enthusiasm for ‘Western’ values. Forced to pawn all she owns in order to keep them afloat financially, Fatma is repaid for this with infidelity.

Approaching the end of her life in Gebze, a place which has undergone so much development Fatma no longer recognises it, she lies in her bed stewing over her past and awaiting a visit from her grandchildren, with only her servant, the dwarf named Recep, whom she both depends upon and despises, for company.

The put upon Recep, who is a result of Selahatin’s infidelity, is Fatma’s only real connection to the world and the source of much of her feelings of shame and guilt, the reasons for which are revealed over the course of the novel. Recep is a simple and kind man who suffers from an existential loneliness. He is uncomplaining and tolerates Fatma’s persistent abuse with resignation. He watches the lives of those around him and the mistakes they make without judgement, and is the unacknowledged backbone of his employer’s family. Unnoticed to Fatma and her dysfunctional grandchildren he labours away in the background without asking for or expecting thanks. He is kind to all including his violent nephew Hasan who has fallen in with right-wing nationalists.

Hasan is disenfranchised from mainstream society due to poverty and is embittered by this. Unable to settle into work or study he spends his days wandering the streets aimlessly in search of distraction and indulging in pathetic power fantasies. As he watches Gebze develop into a seaside resort he feels a mixture of attraction and repulsion. Embittered by what he feels to be his exclusion from society he creates a sense of empowerment by aligning himself with the extreme right. In doing so he is able to demonise the progress around him as immoral, using religion and tradition in a reactionary fashion to decry those he feels have excluded him. Pamuk’s portrayal of this angry young man is a highly perceptive study of the kind of disenfranchised outcast who through his own sense of injured self-aggrandisation, may be coerced into committing extreme actions by those who would seek to profit from it.

Fatma’s visiting grandchildren are Faruk, Metin and Nilgun. The portly and melancholic Faruk is wallowing in the failure of his marriage and perhaps more importantly his loss of faith in history. A depressive and drinker like his father and grandfather he mooches around various archives seeking inspiration for an undefined history book. His only confidante is his younger sister Netin, a student of left leaning ideologies, who indulges his melancholy nature whilst trying to gently prod him towards becoming an engaged historian again. Their brother Metin is a money obsessed would be social-climber, who wants to get to America at all costs. He covetously eyes his grandmother’s property which has become a valuable piece of real estate due to the development of Gebze

Featuring Pamuk’s usual themes; the intersection of East and West, romantic obsession, memory, regret, and cars,the story weaves together the strands of the characters lives, revealing their pasts and presents which will collide in one tragic moment.Occasionally the execution of the writing doesn’t quite match the ambition of the structure. It is hard to tell if this is the fault of Pamuk or the books translator Robert Finn. This is a minor complaint though and does not seriously mar enjoyment of the novel. I found Silent House to be an enjoyable, informative novel and an interesting insight into the progression of a writer.