Before the fall
Orhan Pamuk's second novel, Silent House, was first published in Turkish in 1983. Back then, Pamuk was a promising young writer, and Turkey was just emerging from its 1980 military coup. Nearly 30 years later, quite a bit has changed.
Pamuk is now the Nobel Prize-winning author of 12 novels and essay collections, an international literary figure whose books have been translated into more than 60 languages. Meanwhile, Turkey after a string of coups, conspiracies, constitutional crises and demographic shifts finds itself in the midst of a very different political standoff, this one between the secular elite and an ascendant Muslim middle class. Published in English for the first time, Silent House is a kind of literary time machine, allowing us to glimpse both the writer and his country at this crucial turning point.
Fans of Pamuk will delight in the opportunity to encounter the melancholy master early in his career. Luminous and stylistically inventive, Silent House showcases a young Pamuk, one more energetic and exuberant than the writer of Museum of Innocence or My Name Is Red. At this stage of his career, Pamuk is still stretching his talent and seeing where it might lead him. Focused primarily on those months just before the 1980 coup, the novel brilliantly captures the disorder, nostalgia and hope of a society struggling with violence and self-definition.
Set in a sleepy fishing village turned beach resort outside Istanbul, "Silent House" is narrated by five characters, each connected to the other and to "the strange silent house" where much of the book takes place. Reminiscing about the past and dreaming of the future, they go about their daily business buying milk, visiting friends and sunbathing on the beach conscious of the political tumult around them, but unaware of the role they will play in the larger national drama.
Although the narrators represent mutually exclusive ideological and cultural points of view, we begin to sympathize with all of their perspectives as the book progresses. We understand the melancholy, alcoholic historian searching for answers in the dusty local archive. We identify with the sour old grandmother trying unsuccessfully to forget a shameful episode of her past. We can even relate to the nationalist thug whose dreams and resentments are wrapped up in his desire for a rich young communist girl. We hold onto the hope that an understanding can be reached, even if we know such an accord is impossible.
Readers familiar with Pamuk's later novels Museum of Innocence, Snow, My Name Is Red will recognize the sly storytelling style that pervades Silent House. The novel doubles back and questions itself. Perspectives clash and smother each other, reliabilities are questioned. The alcoholic historian casts doubt on the entire project of storytelling. "That passion for listening to stories leads us astray every time, dragging us off to a world of fantasy, even as we continue to live in one of flesh and blood."
Another character passes along the news that their mutual friend, Orhan, is "supposedly writing a novel." And yet, even with all these winks and nods, the plot moves forward at a steady clip, the tension building toward a surprising yet seemingly inevitable climax.
Although "Silent House" is narrated by a number of characters, the book is steeped in that reflective prose that typifies Pamuk's later work. As one of the characters tries to fall asleep, she ponders the temperament of night. "It's then, at night, that time is truly time, and all the objects come closer to me, just as I come closer to myself."
As another character ruminates on the nature of history, he grasps for a larger truth. "Maybe it was like this: looking for the causes of a series of events, we look to other events to compare them with, and those events in turn must be explained by comparison with other events still, and on and on until we find that our entire lives wouldn't suffice to get to the bottom of so many facts."
In these ponderings, we might find a key to the novel's structure, the purpose of bringing together a series of tangentially related events in search of an answer that might never be found.