Silent House is the first of the books nominated for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize that I’ve read, but I would have read it anyway. I have yet to read My Name is Red which won the IMPAC Prize in 2003 so it was Snow that was my introduction to Pamuk and I was fascinated by the way his characters were trapped in a dichotomy between Islamism and modernism and could not opt out of making a choice. The Museum of Innocence is an intriguing story of obsession which uses the trappings of a failed relationship to show how Turkey is caught between east and west. (See my review). Orhan Pamuk is on my list of favourite authors.
Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006 and his body of work is cited as a ‘quest for the melancholic soul of his native city [with] new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.’ Silent House is his second novel which although first published in 1983 has only just become available in English translation. (What took so long?) It is a fascinating story which uses the device of a family reunion to exemplify the conflict between Western and Eastern values in Turkey and their yearning for a distinctive identity which is also modern. Turkey’s geography places them on the border of Europe and Asia but it is not dynamic Asia which beckons. The political battle for Turkey’s soul is between the Middle East and Europe, between religious tradition and the secularism which modernised Turkey under the dynamic leadership of Kemal Atatürk. (The irony of this novel being nominated for the Man Asia Literary Prize when Turkey is actively campaigning to join the European Union won’t have been lost on anyone who knows Orhan Pamuk’s body of work).
The cover of the Australian edition shows the fate which secular Turks fear: shabby old houses, the ruins of a citadel representing lost glories, a prominent mosque, and a lonely woman in a headscarf plodding along with no apparent purpose. This is what the long-dead Selâhattin rages against in the novel, and it is the life his widow Fatma lives and does not want to change.
There are multiple narrators in Silent House and Selâhattin though long-dead is the most eloquent of them all. We know his voice because Fatma, now in her nineties, is still replaying their arguments in her memory. He was a rude, opinionated man who drank too much and having had to flee Istanbul because of his political ambitions, spent his time writing a derivative encyclopedia designed to replace religion with science and enable Turkey to belatedly join the modern world. His rejection of the existence of God appalls Fatma, and she refuses to be dragged into his sin.
But hide as she might in her room, Fatma cannot escape the intrusions of the modern world. The village is becoming a seaside resort and the next generation is bringing change as it always does. Like the characters in Mahmoud Dowlabati’s The Colonel each member of the family represents an aspect of the body politic. The family, torn apart by political and religious differences, represents the nation. The house and the way of life it represents, is destined for development. It is too tatty now for renovation, and the grandchildren have no sentimental attachment to it.
Recep, Selâhattin’s illegitimate son, lives in the house with Fatma as a house-servant. He panders to her needs and her querulous temper, but his mere existence is a challenge to her notions of a virtuous life. She believes that both Selâhattin’s illegitimate sons are disabled because his sins provoked a wrathful god and Recep encounters this prejudice each time he tries to overcome his loneliness and form relationships in the village. For him, life is about survival, keeping under the radar, and avoiding trouble. He is oblivious to the activities of his nephew Hasan who’s hanging out with right-wing nationalists. He represents those relations we see on TV after some terrorist atrocity, always declaring that the perpetrator was a good person, and that they never saw anything to indicate that trouble was looming.
Fatma’s grandchildren, making a brief visit to the seaside town for the summer holidays, take only a cursory interest in their grandmother, and it is obvious that obligation, not sentiment, motivates their visit to the cemetery where Selâhattin, his son Doğan and his daughter-in-law (their parents) are buried. They pay lip service to traditions like this that are social obligations, but that’s all. Faruk is an inversion of his grandfather: he’s writing an inane derivative history (rather than an inane would-be guide to modern science like his grandfather’s magnum opus), but Faruk is likewise drinking himself silly although his grandmother’s religion precludes alcohol. His sister Nilgun, a gentle soul with mildly leftwing opinions and an armchair interest in communism, spends her time reading on the beach, attracting Hasan’s unwelcome attention. Metin is still at school. He likes jazzing about in perilous car rides, and fantasizes about abandoning old-fashioned Turkey and going to live the good life in America.
These characters enable Pamuk to explore the intricacies of change, tradition, religion and modernity, in a far-sighted novel that is even more relevant today than it was when it was published in 1983.
One of the interesting symbols in this novel is the comb that Hasan steals from Nilgun’s handbag. This novel was written when the wearing of the headscarf was rare for Muslims living in westernised societies and it was not, in the west, the political issue it is today. (I myself never saw anyone wearing one in Melbourne until the 1990s, and I live not far from a large Turkish community where women still do not wear the headscarf). The comb – its theft and its absence – is a way of revealing that Nilgun goes out in public without a headscarf, automatically offending resurgent Islamists who want to jettison Atatürk’s dress reforms. There are also references to ties which symbolise western dress for males, and the fez, which Atatürk banned in 1925 as part of his modernising reforms.
There are also nostalgic references to the old Perso-Arabic script which was replaced by the modern Turkish alphabet by Atatürk in 1928 which in turn led to improved literacy rates. Education – who gets it, who benefits from it, and who makes use of it for something worthwhile is another thread that Pamuk explores through the younger generation in this story.
I read this book as a member of the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize jury. To read my reviews of other Man Asian Literary Prize nominations see here and to see reviews by other jurors, please visit the SMALP Jury Notes at Matt Todd’s A Novel Approach.
Author: Orhan Pamuk
Title: Silent House (originally published as Sessiz Ev in 1983)
Translated from the Turkish by Robert Finn
Publisher: Penguin/Hamish Hamilton, 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of Penguin Australia