Book review: Silent House, by Orhan Pamuk

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THE second novel by future Nobel Prize winner, Orhan Pamuk, Silent House was published in Turkey in 1983, when the author was just 31.

Silent House

By Orhan Pamuk

Faber & Faber, 334pp, £18.99

So it may be considered a young man’s book, even an apprentice work. This is its first English publication, in a translation by Robert Finn, though it appeared in a French translation within a few years of its original publication, and won one of France’s numerous literary prizes.

It is a family saga spanning three generations, a genre popular with both writers and readers. It also explores the theme of Turkey’s encounter with western modernity and the tensions this has occasioned. Although the narrative runs from before the First World War to what was more or less the present day at the time of writing, the setting is contemporary, earlier periods being recalled in memory. Long passages are in the form of an interior monologue running in the mind of the embittered nonagenarian grandmother.

Hers is the silent house of the title. She is cared for, and the house tended, by a dwarf called Recep, who is also one of her late husband’s two illegitimate children. Recep is diligent and decent, but the old woman dislikes, resents and bullies him. She has some reason to be bitter. Her husband, an idealistic doctor, exiled on account of his political activities from Istanbul to what was then a small fishing village and is now a fashionable seaside resort, devoted much of his life to the writing of what was to be a 48-volume encyclopaedia, intended as a work which would bring European enlightenment to Turkey. He also turned to drink and demanded that his wife sell her jewels, piece by piece, since, once he abandoned medicine, he earned nothing. Their son, a civil servant, also became an alcoholic, and died in middle age.

Now, to Recep’s delight, her three grandchildren have arrived for their annual visit. The eldest, Faruk, is a historian, given like his father and grandfather to drink; he will spend hours in the local archives, trying to find a theme for a great work of history. The granddaughter, Nilgun, is a fashionable leftist, who makes a point of buying the Communist Party newspaper every day. The youngest, Metin, is a student who despises intellectual concerns, admires America, speaks knowledgeably of New York, which he has never visited, and intends to become rich. He thinks it ridiculous that his grandmother occupies an old house ripe for property development. Metin spends his time chasing a pretty girl and goes on motor-boat excursions and rowdy night-time drives with the local gilded youth.

The other principal character is Recep’s nephew, Hasan, a student struggling to master mathematics, but more occupied with his aspiration to be a valued member of a violent right-wing nationalist group, equally hostile to western influences and Communism. Inasmuch as there is a plot to the novel, rather than a succession of incidents and reminiscences, it concerns Hasan’s attempt to reconcile his political activity with his desire to re-establish the happy relations he used to enjoy with Nilgun when they were children and each was the other’s favourite playmate. It is not difficult to guess that this will turn out unhappily, even painfully.

There is much to admire and enjoy in the novel. The characters are well observed and imagined. There are several vivid and some comic scenes. Even at this early stage in his career, Pamuk was very good at catching the rhythm of his characters’ thoughts and presenting us with a convincing representation of their inner life. Yet overall the book proves a disappointment. There is undoubtedly a good novel buried here, but, sadly, it is never exhumed. Almost every scene – and internal monologue, goes on long after it has made its point. The novel suffers from verbosity. The grandmother’s memories of her husband’s exposition of the virtues of his encyclopaedia and Faruk’s meandering through the archives go on and on... One longs for a director to cry “cut”.

All this weakens the dramatic and painful end of the novel. It is not that this has been ill-prepared. On the contrary, the seeds were planted early in the novel. The trouble is that so much that is, or should be significant, is smothered by extraneous detail. At two-thirds of its length, which most of its 32 chapters severely edited, this would have been a stronger, more moving book. One may excuse this on the grounds that, as the author’s second novel, it is indeed apprentice work; yet one remembers that similar self-indulgence also spoils Pamuk’s later, more famous and, in the view of so many critics, more successful novels.