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A silence that speaks volumes

Silent House is Orhan Pamuk's second novel, first published in 1983, but only now translated into English.

Author Orhan Pamuk
Author Orhan Pamuk

In the intervening years he has become a literary giant, a Nobel laureate whose artistic credentials have been given an added edge for his courage in speaking out about the Armenian genocide his country committed in the early 20th century. For this unrepentant act he was put on trial by the Turkish Government, and while after much public outcry he was acquitted of the charge of "insulting Turkishness", the reverberations of this defiance rumble on.

The list of Pamuk's titles by now is extensive, but he is probably best known, in this country at least, for Snow, My Name Is Red and the majestic, languorous The Museum Of Innocence, in which his affinity with Proust is at its most apparent.

It is a measure of Pamuk's talent that his second novel reads as if it had only recently been written. Already, at the age of 31, he had mastered a voice and a style that are inimitable and compelling. Indeed, one of the many pleasures of Silent House is the effortless propulsion behind his prose. As the story unfolds, told by a revolving cast of narrators in interior monologue, one realises that there's bewitchery at work here. Were Pamuk to describe the contents of an Argos catalogue, one would be gripped.

Fortunately, the subject of Silent House is more profound and unsettling. The stage – and the mood is very much of stepping into a small, claustrophobic theatre – is a crumbling mansion in which 90-year-old widow Fatma lives, waited upon by a kind and long-suffering dwarf, Recep, who is her late husband's illegitimate son. The house is situated by the sea in a town called Cennethisar, where Fatma first moved with her doctor husband Selahattin more than half a century earlier. It was shortly after the end of the Ottoman Empire, and Selahattin had been exiled from Istanbul for his political activities. They had a son, Dogan, and life could have been fine, with Selahattin making a decent living as a doctor. Instead, he gave up medicine and dedicated himself to writing an encyclopedia to educate his people in the superior ways of the west. At this point things between him and his wife began to sour.

As Fatma's inheritance of jewellery was gradually sold off to pay for this never-ending magnum opus, she retreated into icy disdain and her husband found solace in their servant, who gave him two children. Though Fatma's punishing personality is chilling, one has some sympathy for her plight. Selahattin, for all his puppyish enthusiasms, could be an arrogant fool, as when he rushes into his wife's room, and tells her he has discovered death, and is probably the first person in the country ever to do so: "Tonight, I've identified the invisible line dividing them and us! No, East and West aren't separated by clothing, machines, houses, furniture, prophets, and governments. All of these are mere consequences; what separates us from them is that simple little truth: they have discovered the bottomless pit of Nothingness, whereas we remain unaware of this terrible truth."

Four months later, he was dead. Since then, Fatma's silent conversation with him has continued, as vigorously as in life. Indeed, memories of those decades are the backbone of Silent House, as Fatma lies in bed in the heat and the dark, and replays her tumultuous marriage as vividly as if it were today. Yet while she is trawling the past, still furious with her husband and blind to her own terrifying lack of heart, her three grandchildren arrive for a visit and the house comes alive. There's the eldest, Faruk, an introspective historian who, in his passion for facts and alcohol, has much in common with his long-dead grandfather; his sister Nilgun, a left-leaning and gentle young woman; and their young brother Metin, who has reached the age of falling headlong in love, and is resentful of his lack of money which hampers his friendship with his alluringly wealthy peers.

The viper in the nest, however, is Nilgun's childhood friend Hasan, who has fallen in with a thuggish bunch of young nationalists, and has spied Nilgun's communist leanings. Though never explicit about dates, Pamuk has set his tale on the eve of the military coup of 1980, and the threat of impending violence and turmoil hovers over what might otherwise at first appear to be a story of nothing more than middle-class family tensions.

A knowledge of the history of modern Turkey is not essential, though, to appreciate this novel. Politics is only one of the many prisms through which the action is viewed. Far more intriguing and memorable is the revolving narrative, told variously in the voices of the widow, dwarf, grandchildren and the angry and poor young nationalist, Hasan. Each bares his or her soul to the reader. Faruk, for instance, mourns his loss of excitement in his profession but slowly begins to understand himself: "At that moment I wished my whole consciousness could be erased. I wanted to escape from my own awareness, to wander freely in a world outside my own mind, but understanding now that I would always be two people, I realized that I'd never be able to let go."

While one is inevitably drawn more to some characters than others, Pamuk's kaleidoscope eye is so intense he bestows each personality with the conviction of being the centre of the universe, and thereby justified in whatever they think or do. This produces a queasy sense of unease as one perspective tumbles into another, people's lives colliding, yet never merging, as if to be human is to be perpetually alone at the deepest level.

Slow-burning, reflective and profoundly inward-looking, Silent House is as sinister as its title. At the same time it exudes a sweetness and charm typical of the author, whose melancholy spirit is tempered by fascination with the minutiae of life and the everyday. Most beguiling of all, however, is Pamuk's writing, seamlessly translated by Robert Finn, the only aggravation being its occasional grating Americanisms. Pamuk's simple, interior monologue style manages to be simultaneously plain and ornate, modern and ancient, hospitable and hostile. Here, as with all his fiction, Pamuk gives a voice to the those who will not or cannot speak. In his hands, the silent house is anything but.

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