Silent House

By Orhan Pamuk

Translated by Robert Finn.

Knopf. 320 pp. $26.95

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Reviewed by Katherine Bailey


In a recent interview, Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's most widely read novelist and recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, discussed the previous generation of Turkish fiction writers. He noted that they served their nation by writing about morality and by illuminating a political agenda. Pamuk chose not to emulate his predecessors but instead to chronicle the human condition - love, loss, memory, suffering, and joy.

The Turkish version of his powerful Silent House was published in 1983 and is now out in English. Even as a young man, Pamuk - who is 60 years old - was impressed by Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner. Like those novelists he writes in stream-of-consciousness style: He portrays an individual's point of view by depicting that character's thought processes, either in loose interior monologue or in connection to external occurrences. In Silent House the use of this device allows the reader to become intimately acquainted with each character. Without question, it is the book's best feature.

Set in July of 1980 in Cennethisar, a former fishing village near Istanbul, the novel chronicles the annual summer visit of three adult grandchildren to Fatma, their bedridden, 90-year-old widowed grandmother. Although Cennethisar has become a high-class resort town, Fatma's house, the "silent house," is in shambles.

The visitors, all children of Fatma's deceased son, include Faruk, a dissipated historian and an alcoholic like his father before him; Nilgün, his intellectual and dedicated Communist sister; and Metin, a spoiled high school student. Fatma is cared for by Recep. He is a dwarf, Fatma's husband's illegitimate child, and perhaps the novel's most affecting character. Resentment and hostility characterize the relationship between him and Fatma. She refers to him as "the sneaky dwarf." Recep has a cousin named Hasan who plays a prominent role in the narrative.

Hasan, a high school dropout and ardent right-wing Nationalist, is lazy, self-pitying, and contemptuous of others. Pamuk's stream of consciousness proves perfect in capturing Hasan's inchoate thoughts and increasingly frightening mental instability. It is his mental state that triggers the book's tragic climax.

Just weeks after the time span of the novel's action, a right-wing military coup took place in Turkey, unleashing a wave of repression against Turkish left-wingers, members of the working class, and university students. For some reason, however, Pamuk chooses not to convey the menace of this imminent uprising.

In explaining the inspiration for Silent House, Pamuk describes his discovery of letters his grandfather wrote to his grandmother in Istanbul early in the 20th century, when the grandfather was in Berlin studying law. The letters revealed his grandmother's icy indifference and the unhappiness in the engaged couple's relationship.

Blending his remarkable imagination with these facts, Pamuk created a compelling central figure. The sharp-tongued Fatma is bitter and irritable. At 20, she was forced to leave her luxurious parental home in Istanbul because her husband, Selahattin, had been exiled for his atheism. Selahattin sold off Fatma's jewelry, piece by piece, to support them while he wrote a 48-volume encyclopedia intended to prove to his superstitious countrymen that God does not exist. Underpinning his endless treatise was the contention that only by worshipping science could Turkey hope to join the progress and success of Western civilization.

In an outstanding chapter titled "Grandma Offers Her Prayers," the three grandchildren, as they do every year, take Fatma to the cemetery to visit Selahattin's grave. After lifting her hands in prayer and pleading with God "to take her," the old woman sees that Recep, too, has lifted his hands in supplication. She muses, "I hated the way that dwarf liked to show off - God, please forgive him, but I can't stand to see someone so proud of being a bastard. . . ."

Silent House is carefully divided into chapters, rotating in parallel among the interior monologues of Recep, Fatma, Hasan, Faruk, and Metin. This meticulous structure lends an agreeable unity to his excellent book.

In a delightful closing paragraph, Pamuk weaves in some advice for the reader puzzled by his novel. Fatma, alone and, as usual, lying in her bed and mentally exploring her past, ruminates:

You can't start out again in life, that's a carriage ride you only take once, but with a book in your hand, no matter how confusing and perplexing it might be, once you've finished it, you can always go back to the beginning; if you like, you can read it through again in order to figure out what you couldn't understand before, in order to understand life, isn't it so, Fatma?

Katherine Bailey also reviews for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Visit her website at katherine baileyonbooks.com.