Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 16, 2012

Silent House, by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Robert Finn

Silent House

Shadow Man Asian logo 2012Silent 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.

For other reviews, see The Guardian, the NY Times, and The Independent.

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
ISBN: 9781926428352
Source: Review copy courtesy of Penguin Australia

Availability:

Fishpond: Silent House


Responses

  1. This first came across my radar as one of the NYT’s 100 Best Books of the Year. It looks like it’s definitely worth my time!

  2. Orhan Pamuk has become what you could call a “Great Writer” now hasn’t he. I have not read this one but have been thinking of doing so – your review is very useful in helping my decision! It certainly seems a multi-layered novel , far beyond the normal family saga. Does he bear resemblance to Vikram Seth I wonder?

  3. Emma, Tom, I can see why this would get onto a 100 Best Books list, and yes, I’d agree that he’s in that category of ‘great’. This is remarkably good for a ‘second novel’.
    I don’t know about Vikram Seth. I read A Suitable Boy ages ago, but I’ve read nothing of his since, perhaps I should.
    So many books, so little time!

  4. I’ve only read ‘My Name is Red’, and although it was unquestionably well written, the style and topic didn’t appeal; otherwise, I would have tried something else by now…

    From what I’ve read, no, there isn’t much similarity with Vikram Seth :)

  5. I’m a bit surprised a book published in 1983 would be up for the prize this year. Especially just because it was published in English this year, why would that qualify it for this prize?

    • An interesting question, Tony. I think the rules say something about a book being published *in English* in the current year, to allow for any delay for many of the books in this particular competition to be translated. They probably never foresaw that there might be a very long delay for some works to be translated, as is the case with this one. (Same with Herta Muller, whose early work is suddenly being translated since she won the Nobel Prize).

      • You’re right, Lisa. It’s one of the quirks of the Man Asian Literary Prize that makes all Asian books either written in English, or translated *into* English, in the previous year eligible. I think about half the titles on the longlist this year are older than three years – certainly the ones in translation.

        • Well, why not, there’s no real reason why awards ought to be restricted to a publication year IMO.

  6. Haven’t read much Pamuk before – just something a few years ago I found quite heavy and can’t even remember the name of! (Snow?) It does seem to be rather stretching the entry criteria to have a 30-year-old Turkish book on the longlist… still, your review has piqued my interest – I will go into it with an open mind!

    • I’ll be interested to see what you make of it, Mark:)

  7. I found this great to connect the books of his I ve read and in some ways this is the most political book of his I ve read ,I wonder if he could get away with it now with turkey been quite keen on censorship ,all the best stu

    • Yes indeed, but I think he lives in the USA now?

  8. Your review seems to indicate that among his more famous works this is closest in theme and tone to “Snow”. Was that the impression you got on reading it? I ask because “Snow” is my favourite Pamuk work.

    • Hello Enduring Romantic, and welcome! Yours is an interesting question, and it makes me wish I had read My Name is Red. I have had it on my TBR for too long and must make time for it soon, the problem is that so far every time I get near it, there’s a new one and the temptation I can’t resist is to read the new one first.
      However, yes, it does seem to me that Silent House was treating themes that were familiar to me from having read Snow, and I drew on my (still inadequate) knowledge of Turkey and its politics via Snow to enhance my reading of it. It’s not as rich and powerful as Snow, and there are some flaws – but it’s an early novel, so I didn’t expect it to be. What I liked about it was the way it depicts the diversity of voices in Turkish politics: from the outside, reading the book in a well-established democracy like Australia where the Separation of Powers is set in concrete, the battle over keeping religion out of the constitution and the law can look like a problem that should be easy to solve. But Pamuk shows that it’s just not so. His Fatma is implacable and wholly resistant to change, and young Hasan is so easily attracted into extremism because it gives him a sense of identity. This is a novel for our times even though it was written so long ago because it shows the complexity of the body politic throughout the Middle East and in Turkey.
      All the best for the festive season!
      Lisa
      PS I’m fascinated by your blog, I’ll be a frequent visitor when I finally get round to reading Baudelaire!

      • You know, I’m probably one of the very few who think so, but if you’ve read neither The Black Book nor My Name is Red, then reading the former before the latter might actually help you enjoy My Name is Red even more. I think they’re the two novels where Pamuk’s voice is at its most distinctive – and The Black Book can actually provide a nice segue into My Name is Red (it’s a brilliant book in its own right as well, I feel).

        I understand perfectly what you say about extremism giving one a sense of identity – and the perils of mixing religion and politics – coming, as I do, from India, which is yet perhaps only halfway down the road. That was part of the reason why, I think, Snow resonated so much with me.

        Oh, thanks for stopping by – and I couldn’t recommend Baudelaire highly enough!

        Merry christmas and happy new year to you too.

        • I’ll see if I can get hold of a copy, thanks for the recommendation:)

  9. […] read and really liked three of Orhan Pamuk’s novels: Snow, The Museum of Innocence, and Silent House.  But The White Castle, despite its pedigree as winner of the 1990 Independent Foreign Fiction […]


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