Orhan Pamuk's newly translated novel explores how a Turkish family becomes disconnected because of their differing views on western culture, writes Fran Hawthorne.
Silent House, a translation of acclaimed Turkish novel
Two months before the violent 1980 military coup in Turkey, the Darvinoglu family gathers for its annual reunion at the crumbling ancestral mansion in the resort town of Cennethisar, near Istanbul. Into the mix of clashing personalities, gossip, plans and barely buried grudges that are usually part of such reunions, arrives the newly translated novel Silent House by the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk and adds debates over religion, Turkey's divided feelings about belonging to Europe or the Middle East, and hints of the looming coup.
The national schism is dramatically personified in Hasan, the illegitimate teenage grandson of the family patriarch, Selahattin.
Frustrated by his poverty and flunking out of school, Hasan tries to curry favour with an ultra-nationalist vigilante group, while at the same time stalking Nilgün, the beautiful, cheerful, communist-leaning granddaughter.
Silent House offers clear evidence of why Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2006. The characters are original and complex, and the interplay of themes weaves a piercing portrait of Turkey. The writing style and plot are actually more accessible than in his later novels.
The story is told in chapters narrated by five alternating members of the Darvinoglu clan: Fatma, Selahattin's embittered 90-year-old widow; their grandson Faruk, an overweight history teacher who misses his ex-wife and is looking for a purpose in life; Faruk's younger brother, Metin, a teenager who desperately wants to fit in with the fast, rich crowd; the dwarf Recep, one of Selahattin's two illegitimate sons, now working as Fatma's much-abused servant; and Hasan, Recep's nephew.
Fatma was a sheltered, middle-class 15-year-old in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire when she married Selahattin, a physician and political activist nearly 10 years her senior. However, Selahattin soon abandoned his medical practice. His political rebellion morphed into a passion to modernise Turkey, then into a consuming drive to write an encyclopedia that would encompass all western scientific knowledge. To support his obsession, he gradually pawned the jewels from Fatma's dowry.
"When I've finished my 48-volume encyclopedia of all the basic principles and ideas, everything that must be said in the East will have been said once and for all," he tells the pawnbroker.
But Fatma is horrified by the western culture that Selahattin admires, including his drinking and his lack of religious faith. As their marriage erodes, Selahattin takes up with their cook, producing the two illegitimate sons, Recep and Ismail. To Fatma's despair, her and Selahattin's son Dogan seems to be taking after his father, giving up a promising bureaucratic career and seeking out his two half-brothers, whom Fatma had banished.
The reason for the family reunion is the grandchildren's annual visit, with Fatma, to the graves of Selahattin, Dogan and their mother, Gül. In addition, Metin hopes to persuade his grandmother to sell the mansion, which sits on property that has become valuable, while Faruk is supposedly doing research in the local archives.
Recep tries to hold the group together, even as he bears the brunt of Fatma's decades of fury at her husband. But he is desperately lonely, and the Darvinoglus' finances are shrivelling.
Pamuk's novels are famous for their complex patterns, and in Silent House (which was originally published in Turkey in 1983), they cross and re-cross in waves that intensify without being repetitive: Fatma's devotion to religion and the old days finds a warped reflection in Hasan's ultra-nationalism. Hasan and Metin both pursue young women a class above their own and dream of someday getting even with those who mock them now. Ironically, though, Metin is a mathematics whiz, while Hasan is terrible at maths.
Like his father and grandfather, Faruk drinks too much, and his academic research threatens to become as obsessive as Selahattin's encyclopedia. In scouring the archives, he muses, "looking for the causes of a series of events, we look to other events to compare them with, and those events in turn must be explained by comparison with other events still, and on and on until we find that our entire lives wouldn't suffice to get to the bottom of so many facts".
Most important is the recurring theme of feeling inferior to the West. It is the foundation of Selahattin's encyclopedia project and Metin's dream of living in America. (Metin even memorises statistics such as the population of New York City and the height of the Empire State Building.) As well, it seeps through Faruk's visit to a belly-dancing show and the casual holiday plans of the indolent rich kids. When one Turkish youth mentions that a British visitor wants to go to a nearby island, "at once everyone felt that sense of inferiority, the need to please the European, and so we piled into the boats". It is also a theme that permeates Pamuk's novels.
Of course, the counter to this inferiority is Hasan's vigilante group and, ultimately, the military coup.
Some of this novel's plot patterns obviously echo two classics, with mixed success. Hasan's and Metin's pursuits of wealthier, unreachable women follow the path trod by Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby. This imitation works without becoming jarring, perhaps because chasing unattainable love is a common human dream, or perhaps because these storylines are crucial to the main plot. Less successful, however, is the way Selahattin's never-to-be-finished encyclopedia reminds readers of the equally useless research of Edward Casaubon in George Eliot's Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life. In this case, the new version may seem to be awkwardly copying the old one precisely because such obsessions are rare.
Another jarring note is that, of all the main characters, only Nilgun never gets a narrative voice. Indeed, Pamuk's novels have frequently been criticised for lacking strong, central female characters.
But those are minor flaws compared with the author's overall skill. For instance, he can reveal a multitude of emotional states in just a few lines of dialogue.
Even the novel's chapter titles have subtle meanings and are dryly understated.
Hasan does a lot more than just pick up a record and notebook - including some serious violence - in the chapter called "Hasan Tries to Return the Record and the Notebook".
The "silent house" of the book's title refers to Fatma's oft-stated desire to be left alone, yet also to her paranoia that Recep is telling the grandchildren the true story of his genealogy and upbringing when she hears talking - when the house isn't silent.
The book nears its end with a stunning soliloquy on silence by Fatma, who is growing increasingly scared: "As though there was no one left in the world, not a bird, not a shameless dog, not so much as an insect to remind us with its buzzing about the heat and the time of day: time had stopped, and only I remained, with my panicked voice calling out again downstairs for nothing, and my cane knocking again and again on the floor, and still it seemed there was no one to hear me: only empty armchairs, tables slowly accumulating dust, closed doors, hopeless furniture that creaked all on its own."
The cultural division that lies at the heart of Silent House has personally affected Pamuk, a secular, westernised Turk, who was put on trial in 2005 for insulting Turkey because he was quoted in a magazine interview referring to the nation's historical mass murders of Armenians and Kurds. (The charges were ultimately dropped on a technicality.) And it is a dilemma - between East and West, religious and secular values - that Turkey has still not fully resolved.
Fran Hawthorne is an award-winning author and journalist based in the United States who specialises in covering the intersection of business, finance and social policy.