Silent House

silent house

After being transfixed by both My Name is Red and Snow, I fell out of love with Orhan Pamuk on reading The Museum of Innocence; despite the fact that Silent House comes complete with praise for Pamuk’s last novel from a number of well-respected critics, I found it over-long and self-indulgent. Silent House, however, exists at the opposite end of Pamuk’s oeuvre, an early novel that is only now being translated into English. This, too, raises a doubt – perhaps it is only appearing on the back of Pamuk’s Nobel win and is a relatively weak work not really worth the effort. To that I would say, no – this is far less disappointing than The Museum of Innocence, a bravura performance of narrative that suggests a writer already at ease with his craft.

Silent House is set in Turkey in 1980 (only three years before it was published)and tells the story of three generations of a family over the course of a few days. The elderly widow Fatma is visited by her three grandchildren: Faruk, Metin and Nilgun. She lives alone with her servant Recep, the illegitimate son of her husband. The son of her husband’s other illegitimate child, Hassan, also features heavily. All six of these characters play their part in telling the story in what is a master-class of multiple narration. Each has their own concerns: Faruk is a historian who haunts the local archives looking for a story but is ultimately disillusioned by history; Metin is obsessed by wealth, attempting to convince his grandmother to knock down the house and build apartments and longing to move to America; Nilgun is a young girl flirting with Communism. Hassan, a childhood friend, has conversely become embroiled with a group of Nationalists. Even in translation, the different voices of the characters come across. Most successful is that of the widow who spends most of her time reliving the past with only the occasional line of dialogue from the present intervening. It is through her that the character of her husband comes to life, a man who left Istanbul to devote himself to writing an encyclopaedia in the hope that Turkey could ‘catch up’ with European nations:

“I’m obliged to articulate a number of things that would be absurdly plain in any advanced nation, just to rouse this mound of sloths.”

His Quixote type quest creates a perspective for the political tensions in the present, with lists of those killed on both the Communist and Nationalist sides of the divide printed daily in the paper.

The novel contains two love stories, but both also have a political dimension. Metin seeks to impress a rich girl he has met but cannot compete with the wealth of her social circle. Hassan falls for Nilgun but also has to impress his fellow Nationalists who wold ridicule him if he were to admit being in love with a society girl. Pamuk is wonderful both on the agonies of young love and also the dynamics of the peer groups. In Hassan in particular, Pamuk creates a convincing picture of someone who is not inherently evil but whose frustrations at life make him capable of evil. His final words in the novel are:

“Watch out for me from now on! Be afraid!”

Despite its now historical setting, this novel still has plenty to teach us.

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