Past and present collide in Turkey


Orhan Pamuk’s 1983 book is accessible and a good introduction to his fine work.

“To think that sitting here in the East we can succeed at finding and discussing anything new is just foolishness,” says a character in Orhan Pamuk’s Silent House, published in 1983 and now in English for the first time.

Even the setting — a onetime fishing village near Istanbul that has become a tourist resort the summer before the Turkish military’s 1980 coup — suggests Pamuk’s early preoccupation with his lifelong theme: How might a non-Western country like Turkey join the global village while remaining true to itself? Presaging what was to come in masterpieces such as My Name is Red, Silent House offers multiple, competing answers to that question, presented through five rotating narrators over the course of 32 chapters.

The most compelling voice belongs to Fatma, the 90-year-old matriarch from a wealthy family who left Istanbul with Selahattin — her husband through an arranged marriage and also a politically radical physician — after he was exiled during the waning years of the Ottoman regime. Selahattin spends his life writing a never-finished “Encyclopedia” that castigates the East as backward, extols the virtues of science and proclaims the death of God.

Fatma burns Selahattin’s papers after he dies, stoking her resentment at a man who drank too much and spent too much time in a servant’s bed, resulting in two illegitimate children. One of them is Recep, a dwarf who serves her in an iconic master-slave relationship that has crippled them both, as we see through the chapters Recep narrates.

Fatma can be petty and cruel in trying to preserve the past, embodied by her titular house, a grand but dilapidated symbol of an older Turkey. But gimlet-eyed as Pamuk can be, there’s always something Proustian about his backward glance, giving warmth to Fatma’s dreams of a bygone era.

Conversely, there’s something hard and metallic about the future-oriented dreams harbored by Metin, the youngest of Fatma’s three grandchildren, gathered together in Fatma’s house for their annual summer visit. Longing for America and obsessed with money, Metin wants to replace Fatma’s decaying mansion with more of the lucrative condos now surrounding it.

Metin’s chapters echo those given to his cousin Hasan, son of the second of Selahattin’s illegitimate children. Both teenagers indulge disturbing male fantasies of power over women, played out in poorly plotted chapters. Hasan’s envious and hate-filled voice, given outlet through his involvement with right-wing thugs, is a prescient prototype for latter-day terrorists. Once again, Pamuk summons empathy, letting us understand Hasan without ever excusing him.

Such a presentation is true to the goal of Pamuk’s own double in this novel: Faruk, a disillusioned historian who wants to write the past from multiple perspectives and without an interpretive gloss, even though he knows this is impossible. His ruminations are often clumsy and fuzzy, symptomatic of a novel that despite many fine passages often reads like the apprentice work it is. But Silent House is also more accessible than many of Pamuk’s later novels, making it an excellent introduction to his Nobel Prize-winning body of work.

Mike Fischer reviewed this book for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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