The translation into English, for the first time, of Orhan Pamuk’s Silent House (Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books) written in 1983 is a virtual treat for Pamuk’s fans. Unlike his later novels, Snow or Istanbul, which I have read and savoured, but which do not allow snappier reading, the narrative of this earlier book is racy, and a much easier read. But though at one level Silent House might read almost like a thriller, some of the reflections on loneliness of old age and death have shades of pitch dark and can shake you to the core.
Set in Turkey prior to the military coup of 1980, brought about by unprecedented political uncertainty and violence, economic and social tensions, the story is about a young Turkish doctor, Selhattin, who is impatient to bring European thinking and culture, and scientific ethos into Turkey, which is in the last stage of the Ottoman empire. He is banished from Istanbul by the dispensation for this sin and lands up, with his young, aristocratic wife Fatma, in an obscure fishing hamlet near the mega city. Ranting and raving, he keeps cursing the “Unionists” for taking his beloved country towards a ruinous path, and resolves to write an encyclopaedia to lead his countrymen into an era of enlightenment.
But by the time the story begins, he is long gone, leaving his old and infirm wife in the silent, decrepit house, waiting for the annual visit of her three grandchildren — Faruk, Metin and Nilgun Bey. Till then she has for company the dwarf Recep, whom she abhors and ill-treats for a reason we soon find out.
Much of the narrative is related through Fatma’s reminiscences. She recalls how soon after their exile from Istanbul, the Unionists, who had sunk the Ottoman empire, were overthrown, but Selhattin refuses to return home because “that mundane little comedy called politics in Istanbul is nothing compared with the momentous work” of his encyclopaedia which, being a profound scientific marvel, would endure for centuries.
But in creating that marvel, one after another of Fatma’s precious diamond brooches, rings, and so on have to be sold, making her bitter, angry and miserable.
The Nobel laureate’s arresting and gripping narrative, translated into English by Robert Finn, is as much about hope as despair, sunshine and optimism of the young and the rich as gloom and despair of the have-nots — the young, oppressed, deprived, and hence angry. Fatma recalls how Selhattin decided to name their newborn Dogan (birth) “so that he’ll always remind us of the new world that is dawning, so he lives in security and prosperity and believes that his strength is a match for the world!”
Ironically, that new world remains elusive. Along with Turkish history of those tumultuous years, the author expertly unveils for us the tensions between Turkish intellectuals yearning for liberal Western values, and conservatives who hate the decadent West.
Weaving a magical web of idealism, Selhattin tells his wife how they’d establish a “brand new world… of freedom such as the East has never seen, a paradise of logic… we’ll do it better than the West, we’ve seen their mistakes, and we won’t repeat them.” But ultimately he discovers the truth: “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.”
The family is cursed with death in the young; along with Selhattin, their son Dogan and his wife are gone too, and Metin Bey, the grandson, urges Fatma to either sell or develop the large house into “new heated apartments”, which would bring in money. “I hate this country of idiots; I want to go to America. I need money.”
Interwoven in this narrative is the story of an ordinary lottery seller’s son, Hasan, who has grown up with the younger Beys. He is hopelessly in love with Nilgun Bey, but is outclassed by her higher social hierarchy and wealth. The “nationalists” have co-opted him in the fight against the Communists, but his dilemma is that Nilgun has Communist leanings and he is chosen to teach her a lesson.
There are interesting bits on the gender issue too. In the last few decades, Turkey has been caught between the modern and liberal on the one hand, and the traditional and religious on the other. Hasan is a God-fearing man whose mother wears a head-scarf; as he gazes into the future — 15 years thence when he would be a big industrialist — he imagines Nilgun the Communist, captured and brought trembling before him. Releasing her, he says: “We won, we didn’t leave Turkey to you atheists.” Asking her to calm down, he says: “Relax, no harm will ever come to women or girls from me and my friends... We are completely devoted to the Turkish traditions that have come down over thousands of years, so you don’t have to be afraid.”
But he does look upon women as “pitiful creatures”, while disapproving of guys who “show them disrespect and only want to go to bed with them, rich guys and materialistic bastards.”
Pamuk chooses Metin and his rich, upper-class friends to paint a harsh portrait of how naïve and unfocussed the educated and intellectual classes were in Turkey at that time. Long, drunken revelries with music blasting, petrifying people by overspeeding in their flashy cars and little else occupies their lives. Metin’s rich friend Ceylan longs to be sophisticated “like that Italian journalist who is always interviewing famous people, Kissinger or Anwar Sadat.” But she is not prepared to read books from “morning till night” to reach such a coveted position, because she wants to have fun too. And not be “like that kid in our school, who read so much he went nuts, they put him in the asylum”.
The short, racy chapters describing Metin’s outings with his friends, Faruk’s dreams of becoming a writer, Nilgun’s outings to the beach (by now the little hamlet has become a tourists’ beach haven), and Hasan’s aspiration to marry Nilgun coupled with his sheer contempt for the humble background of his own parents make an absorbing read.
But at the core of the Silent House lie dark thoughts about death and introspection on what comes after — all related in gripping, powerful prose. While an entire chapter is devoted to Fatma and her family’s visit to the graveyard to pay homage to the dead, Fatma’s ruminations on loneliness and death are chilling. During the climax, as the already quiet house plunges into a deadly silence and nobody answers her frantic calls, Fatma feels 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… My god, I was scared thinking my thoughts would freeze like the furniture, that I would become as colourless and odourless as a piece of ice, stuck here for eternity never to feel anything.”
The woman who has lived 70 long years in the same house, and has always felt that “a little girl has to be able to stay an innocent child her whole life long, if she wants to”, ruminates on life being a journey in a carriage. Getting off the carriage on the other side, she thinks: “That was it, it wasn’t the most pleasant trip, I didn’t understand a thing, but I still want to start it all over again. But one is not allowed! Come on, they say, we’re here now, on the other side, you can’t get back on again.”
The driver snaps his whip and the carriage moves away, and Pamuk leaves you with a swirl of thoughts in your head.