Silent House, By Orhan Pamuk The Innocence of Objects, By Orhan Pamuk

Characters who make exhibitions of themselves

Max Liu
Saturday 06 October 2012 18:08

We must read Orhan Pamuk's second novel through the double veneer of time and translation. Is it strange for Turkey's only Nobel laureate to see a book he wrote half his lifetime ago belatedly appear in English? Does he read Silent House as though it is the work of another writer? Does he wince at the heavy influence of William Faulkner, wishing that he'd fleshed out his secondary characters or restrained the intensity of his five narrators' longings? Perhaps he admires its immediacy, topicality, early signs of the inventiveness and conviction that would later distinguish novels such as The Black Book and The Museum of Innocence.

In the summer of 1980, with Turkey on the brink of a military coup, Faruk, Nilgun and Metin visit Fatma, their 90-year-old grandmother, in the coastal village of Cennethisar. When she isn't hectoring Recep, the dwarf who is her servant and her late husband's illegitimate son, Fatma reflects on her past, which is bound up with her country's struggle with modernity. Pamuk probably knows Dark House was the working title for two of Faulkner's major works and, in this novel of competing voices, silence is figurative, secrets and shame shroud a crumbling mansion in "damp, deadly interior darkness".

Pamuk captures the melancholy of resorts which used to be ports, the tenuous world of beach shops, shabby bars, "Anatolian Nights" where the indigenous serve the entitled. "It's everywhere," a villager says as the air turns blue with television news of fighting between nationalists and communists. Nilgun sunbathes, reading Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, from which Silent House inherits its tense atmosphere of conflicting ideologies, watched by Recep's teenage nephew, Hasan. He runs with fascists, collecting protection money, daubing walls in graffiti. Vague, full of misdirected yearning, Hasan claims to love Nilgun but, as with Metin's infatuation with one of Cennethisar's seasonal nouveau riche, inflicts affection on her. Hasan imagines leading an uprising ("The television and newspapers will talk about me one day …") while Metin dreams of escaping to America, returning triumphant. Both answer rejection with violence.

In reminding us of the damage that young men can do, and dramatising dead men's legacies, Silent House examines literature's role in a traumatised society. In one of several soliloquies, we learn that Fatma's alcoholic husband made her sell her jewellery to fund his attempt at writing an encyclopedia: "So that the East, which has been slumbering for centuries, will wake up." The idea that writing can become an excuse for irresponsibility and vanity echoes through generations when Faruk, another raki-soaked intellectual, warns: "Stories are good for a laugh but not much else." At the end, however, Fatma remembers coveting a copy of Robinson Crusoe when she was a child. As her life recedes, she celebrates literature's capacity for return in what feels like an affirmation of the author's faith, in this book and the ones he will write.

The majority of the 74 chapters of The Innocence of Objects – the elegant catalogue from the Museum of Innocence that the author opened in Istanbul this year, and which takes its name from his 2008 novel – present relics of 20th-century Istanbul life, mini-essays and novel excerpts. This is the monument that Kemal, the narrator of The Museum of Innocence, used to commemorate his doomed affair with the beautiful Fusun. Pamuk says the objects, which he has spent three decades collecting, "talk among themselves, singing a different tune and moving beyond what was described in the novel". He discovers the "serendipitous nature of beauty" on a search which yields mementos of the everyday (4,213 cigarette butts), curiosities and kitsch, as well as Fusun's hairclips, pop bottle and half-eaten ice-cream.

The catalogue is an idiosyncratic supplement to Pamuk's oeuvre and a unique primer for visitors to Istanbul. It indicates that the museum, like the fiction, owes as much to patience as it does to inspiration. After questioning the worth of his endeavour, he finally concludes: "What I was doing was making me happy, so I should consider myself lucky." By honouring Kemal's desire to preserve lost love, Pamuk has created a record of delight.

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