Silent House, By Orhan Pamuk, trans. Robert Finn

Family saga, social satire, portrait of an age: the Turkish master shows his early class

Alev Adil
Saturday 10 November 2012 01:00 GMT

The welcome publication of Orhan Pamuk's second novel Silent House in English translation provides an excellent introduction to the author for those unfamiliar with his work and a new perspective on his oeuvre for his admirers.

Set in the same period, Turkey just before the military coup in 1980, and among the same social milieu of upper middle-class Eurocentric urbanites as his novel The Museum of Innocence, Pamuk's earlier work is slimmer and snappier, written before he had developed his inimitable, extraordinary and often baroque sentence structures.

The themes and narrative tropes developed in his later novels - the tensions and misunderstandings between East and West, the legacies of the Ottoman Empire and the Kemalist revolution, lone quixotic scholars, mysterious archives and unrequited love - are all in evidence in this gripping family saga.

Paterfamilias Selahattin is a young doctor during the last days of the Ottoman Empire. Impatient to bring European Enlightenment ideals to Turkey, he wins the disapproval of Talat Pasha and the Young Turk administration and is exiled from Istanbul. Taking his young aristocratic wife Fatma with him, he chooses to settle in an obscure fishing village where he intends to compile an encyclopaedia bringing secularism and scientific method to the Turks.

By 1980, Selahattin is long dead and his life's work is a failed, forgotten project. The village is now a bustling holiday resort. Fatma is a bitter old woman, alone in the house they built together, waiting for her grandchildren, Faruk a recently divorced historian, his sister Nilgun, a bookish leftist, and younger brother Metin, an ambitious and entrepreneurial schoolboy, to visit her for their annual summer holiday.

With its modernist multi-perspective narrative, the novel is full of arresting and unforgettable literary moments, from opulent children's parties in a Pasha's house to the savage beating of two tiny infants in the snow. Fatma's stream-of-consciousness reminiscences and the observations and aspirations of her grandsons Faruk and Hasan, her faithful servant Recep and his nephew Hasan, provide disparate voices and different points of view.

The dark narrative that emerges illuminates Turkey's history as well as telling the tangled tale of the Darvinoglus. Silent House is at its heart a Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age novel, and Pamuk does not forget that the roots of the genre are in the folk tale about the dunce of the family, as he echoes both literary forms through the legitimate and illegitimate grandsons of Selahattin. Metin is clever and hard-working but driven by greed, impatient for his grandmother to sell the house, while Hasan is increasing alienated and drawn to right-wing nationalist hooliganism and violence

Silent House is both a novel of ideas and a psychologically gripping portrait of its protagonists, of the monstrous Fatma and her bitter obduracy in particular. Fatma's implacable rage and her husband's hopeless idealism and arrogance brew a toxic legacy for their descendants. Pamuk's characters are engaging but also fulfil a metaphorical function. The lethal consequences of their actions raise wider political and social questions.

Where Pamuk's later novels address a global readership and speak to the European literary canon, here he speaks to a Turkish readership with great prescience, subtlety and sophistication. Silent House is both a highly readable fiction and an unsparing portrait of the Turkish intellectual class as perennially naïve, and tragically apathetic, to the point of self-destruction.

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