SILENT HOUSE. By Orhan Pamuk. Knopf. 334 pages. $26.95.
The new novel by Orhan Pamuk is not new. “Silent House” was the author’s second novel, written in 1983, and finally brought into English translation by Robert Finn nearly 30 years later.
The story begins shortly before the infamous Turkish coup of 1980, a time of violence and slayings among various right-wing factions and leftists. Against this backdrop are the dynamics of a dysfunctional family. A bitter 90-year-old widow, living in a mansion, awaits the yearly visit of her three grandchildren. While she looks forward to this in anticipation, it would be incorrect to say it will bring her joy, for nothing can do this. Her manservant is a dwarf named Recep, who is the illegitimate offspring of her deceased husband. The grandchildren are all without parents, so an entire generation is missing, and death permeates the house and the very air.
The novel is divided into 32 chapters. Each chapter is written in the first person by one of the primary characters: Recep, the dwarf; Fatma, the grandmother; Hasan, who is Recep’s nephew but not part of the family; Faruk, the eldest of the grandchildren; and Metin, the youngest grandson. Nilgun, the granddaughter, though a primary character, does not narrate any chapters. This seems a curious choice, and the book would have benefited from her voice juxtaposed with the others. The narration often overlaps events and facts, so they are seen from different points of view. While the book is not plot-driven, events unfold in the internal dialog of each character.
Fatma has existed for decades in unhappiness that has warped her so badly that her internal dialog is often reminiscent of Anthony Perkins’ performance as Norman Bates’ mother. She often delves into paranoia and is especially suspicious and scornful of Recep. She obsesses over the memory of her deceased husband: A doctor who lost his practice due to political conflicts, he devoted himself to writing an encyclopedia of everything, which he believed would bring enlightenment to the Turkish people and help them understand their true place in the world. In failing, he turned to excessive drinking and selling off his wife’s precious jewels.
Recep is the narrator of the first chapter, and thus we identify sympathetically with him immediately. From all points of view, he seems to be a good and dedicated man, family member and servant. He is forever the outsider, but he strives for legitimacy through doing and being good.
Faruk is an unhappily divorced professor of history who drinks too much. He is seeking to make sense of history, looking for stories that tell something beyond facts. Nilgun is a university student who peruses leftist newspapers but seems content to sun at the beach and read Turgenev. Metin hangs out with friends who are wealthier than he is, and he hopes to seek fame and fortune in America.
But the person who emerges as the central force in the novel is Hasan, Recep’s nephew who is involved with a gang of right-wing thugs. A borderline convert, he seeks to find companionship and to fit in with the group, but remains somehow outside. At the same time, he desires Nilgun, whom he has known since childhood, seeking her acceptance and her love. Not allowed into their bourgeois world, Hasan’s anger is channeled into destructive forces that are personal and political.
Pamuk, the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature award winner, is the author of such great works as “My Name is Red,” “Snow,” “The Black Book” and his most recent novel, “The Museum of Innocence.” While “Silent House” is not as mature a work as his better-known books, its experimental nature, its sense of place, its atmosphere and its political and cultural backdrop make it compelling reading.
Reviewer Michael Nelson is a writer and editor in Charleston.