In his native Turkey, Orhan Pamuk is a very big deal. Around the world, he’s sold an unshabby 11 million books in 60 languages. Writing in the New York Times Margaret Atwood once called Pamuk a “rock star, guru, diagnostic specialist and political pundit,” adding that “the Turkish public reads his novels as if taking its own pulse.”
Pamuk’s international profile was raised considerably when he became Turkey’s only Nobel laureate in 2006. The award came on the heels of the author’s trial for insults to the nation as a result of statements he made confirming the Armenian genocide of 1915 (the charges were dropped following an international outcry questioning Turkey’s fitness to enter the EU).
Originally published in 1983, Silent House was Pamuk’s second novel. Set during the summer before Turkey’s 1980 military coup, the novel’s centre is 90-year-old Fatma, who lives in a decrepit mansion in a former fishing village fast becoming a trendy resort area. Fatma’s three grandchildren have come from Istanbul to visit her for their annual reunion: Faruk, a historian who preoccupies himself randomly mining the local archives; teenaged Metin, who, when he’s not dreaming of going to America, parties, drag races and woos local girls; and Nilgün, their sister, who lolls about the beach reading Turgenev.
Fatma is plagued by the memory of her late husband Selahattin, a secular free-thinker who gave up his medical practice to work on a never-to-be-completed encyclopedia that he believed would enlighten the backwards East about Western thought and science (a common theme in Pamuk’s work). When her mind is in the present, Fatma lives in paranoid fear that her dwarf-servant Recep will reveal to Faruk and the others that he is one of Selahattin’s two illegitimate children.
The story is told through the rotating stream-of-consciousness perspectives of five characters. One of these is Recep’s nephew Hasan, who has left school to hang with nationalist thugs. When Hasan sees Nilgün he becomes obsessed with her (neither knows they share a grandfather) and concocts elaborate means for them to meet. But Nilgün snubs him, and Hasan’s reaction to this provides a pivotal scene later in the novel.
Turkish is an absurdly difficult language to translate into English. It lacks the verbs “to be” and “to have,” favours passive voice and often places verbs at the end of long sentences. Maureen Freely, who has translated many of Pamuk’s books (though not this one), has likened the experience to “carrying a bunch of groceries around without a grocery bag.” The country’s language revolution of the 1930s, which sought to rid Turkish of Arabic and Persian influences, effectively gutted Turkish vocabulary and many writers since that time, Pamuk included, have seen it as their mission to reforge the language anew.
That said, it’s hard to say how much of novel’s frequent awkwardness is due to Pamuk’s then-unhoned skills as a writer and how much to Robert Finn’s translation. Sentences like this, for example, are common: “Women scare me sometimes. They are like things you just can’t understand, with dark thoughts you can never know, some parts of them are so horrifying, and disaster is waiting for you if you fall for them.” English readers may also bristle at the novel’s liberal use of that bête noir of punctuation, the exclamation point.
Its odd mix of formality and excitability make this novel harder to warm to than, say, Pamuk’s 16th century Ottoman empire-set My Name is Red. Silent House certainly sheds light on his evolution as a novelist; those new to his work, however, would do best to start elsewhere.