An Unusual Family Reunion
On October 12, 2006, the head of the Swedish Academy Horace Engdahl named Ferit Orhan Pamuk as the awardee for the Nobel Prize in Literature. This came after the Turkish writer was charged with a criminal case based on a complaint made by Kemal Kerinçsiz, a renowned nationalist lawyer who gained notoriety for filing cases against writers and journalists such as Elif Shafak. The basis of the complaint was statements made by Pamuk about the Armenian genocide and mass killings of Kurds, two highly sensitive and controversial subjects that Turks often skirt around, particularly because of the Turkish government’s refusal to acknowledge these atrocities. Pamuk’s trial was highly publicized that even prominent writers across the world such as José Saramago, Gabriel García Márquez, Günter Grass, Umberto Eco, Carlos Fuentes, Juan Goytisolo, John Updike, and Mario Vargas Llosa issued a joint statement in support of Pamuk. The charges against Pamuk did not prosper and were eventually dropped on January 22, 2006.
Pamuk, however, is more than this pivotal event in his life. He is a writer of top-notch quality recognized across the world. Born on June 7, 1952, in Istanbul, Turkey, Pamuk’s path to a writing career was not always straightforward. He first studied architecture before dropping out and pursuing a degree in journalism. He started writing regularly in 1974. Almost a decade later, in 1982, he published his first novel, Cevdet Bey ve Oğulları (Cevdet Bey and His Sons). It was a critical success, winning Pamuk the 1983 Orhan Kemal Novel Prize. The original manuscript of his debut novel also won the 1979 Milliyet Press Novel Contest Award. This initial success laid out the path for what would be a credible and prolific literary career that examined the realities that keep hounding his home country. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize, the Academy praised him for his “quest of the melancholic soul of his native city” which led to the discovery of “new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.”
The initial success of Cevdet Bey ve Oğulları was succeeded by the publication of his sophomore novel, Sessiz Ev, a year later. While it was published in 1983, it took nearly three decades before the book was made available to anglophone readers; in comparison, Pamuk’s third novel Beyaz kale (1985; The White Castle) was translated into English in 1990. In 2012, the novel was released as Silent House with a translation by Robert Finn. One can surmise that the translation of the novel was driven by the global readers’ proclivity for literary completism. It is also safe to conclude that Pamuk’s awarding of the Nobel Prize played a seminal role in the translation of his sophomore novel.
“You can’t start out again in life, that’s a carriage ride you only take once, but with a book in your hand, no matter how confusing and perplexing it might be, once you’ve finished it, you can always go back to the beginning; if you like, you can read it through again, in order to figure out what you couldn’t understand before, in order to understand life.”~ Orhan Pamuk, Silent House
Set in July 1980, the main plot driver of Silent House was a summer family reunion. The family reunion was to take place in the titular silent house located in Cennethisar, a small fishing town in the district of Gebze near Istanbul. The silent house was lorded over by its owner, 90-year-old widow Fatma Hanim; she was referred to interchangeably as grandmother and Buyukhanim, depending on the narrator. She has spent decades living a lonely life in her house. She was domineering and crotchety. The way she runs the household was akin to that of a dictator with an iron fist. She was embittered and, as the story moved forward, it was increasingly becoming palpable that she was trapped in the past. Her husband, Dr. Selahattin Bey, has long passed away but his memories still keep Fatma at night.
Fatma, however, was not the only one occupying the house. Recep, one of the five main characters who drove the story, was a dwarf who was already fifty-five years old but still serving as Fatma’s manservant. It was Recep who narrated the novel’s opening chapter; the succeeding chapters were alternately narrated by the four other main characters, including Fatma. It was Recep who looked after the upkeep of the house. His responsibilities include menial tasks such as washing the dishes, cleaning the house, and even ensuring that the house has enough stock. Recep’s responsibilities, however, were not limited to running errands for the home. It was his responsibility to look and care after the house’s mistress, ensuring that Fatma has food to eat and that she gets to bed on time. He endured his master’s mood swings and her eccentricities. One can only wonder why he was keeping up with her antics.
Joining the two denizens of the silent house were Fatma’s three grandchildren who traveled from Istanbul in an old, broken-down Turkish-made car for their annual summer holiday retreat. The car was driven by Faruk, the eldest of Fatma’s grandchildren. He was a historian and worked as an associate professor at the university. He was also working to complete the work started by his father and grandfather. Relegated to the backwaters of the small village, the patriarch spent his time drinking raki while working on the manuscript of an all-encompassing encyclopedia. The encyclopedia is an attempt to enlighten Turkey by “bringing Western knowledge to the East.” The goal was to free the nation’s denizens from the chains that have shackled them to the ground. Faruk, like his grandmother, was unhappy. He was also divorced and, like his grandfather before him, indulged himself in the company of the bottle.
The middle child and the only rose among the thorns, Nilgün was the antithesis of her older brother. She was pretty and good-humored, a contrast to the gloom of Faruk. She was currently studying sociology and was also a revolutionist who reads left-leaning newspapers. The youngest of the trio, Metin, was a nerdy high school student. Of the three siblings, Metin was the most practical. He only wants money while he fantasizes about going to America. However, his dream is unattainable at the moment. In the meantime, he pondered the values of Western materialism. At school, he was the odd one out, the one who constantly tried to keep up with the indulgence of his high-rolling society schoolmates. As the story moved forward, it was becoming clear how the occupants of the silent house no longer have a grip on their own lives.
“You’re just consoling yourself, don’t you see that your thoughts about what historians do are themselves but another story? In someone else’s telling, historians could be said to do something completely different. They may accuse us of harboring ideologies and filling the heads of our contemporaries with more or less false notions about themselves and their world, but I’ve no dout that the true appeal of history is the pleasure of the story, the power to divert us.”~ Orhan Pamuk, Silent House
Interestingly, of the siblings, Nilgün did not share her point of view. Rather, she was observed and examined through the lenses of other characters, in particular, Hasan who essentially transformed into the story’s main plot driver. Hasan was the nephew of Recep and was of the same age as Nilgün. He was also attracted to Nilgün. He dropped out of high school after he realized that earning an education will barely elevate him and his family from the quagmires of poverty. With nothing to occupy his attention, Hasan became an easy recruit for a gang of right-wing nationalists who indoctrinated him to beat up communists he encountered. When Hasan, by chance, came across Nilgün buying a communist-leaning newspaper, Hasan kicks and punches her for what he perceived was her “crime”.
This was a pivotal scene in the story that highlighted the political nature of the story. Politics was ubiquitous in the story. It also played a key role in the exile of Dr. Selahattin Bey and Fatma to the backwater town where the doctor served poor fishermen. Dr. Selahattin Bey was an idealist with modern political and religious views that earned the ire of the sultan’s grand vizier, thus, prompting them to be relegated to the fishing village. Nationalism is also prevalent in modern Turkey; it was, after all, one of the reasons why Pamuk was charged. The novel’s political nature, however, was not only literal. In his contemplation on how to deal with Nilgün, Hasan turned into a representation of modern Turkey. Should he give in to his sexual urges, a more Western approach? Or should he use the Eastern approach and punish a woman proven to be a communist?
Other important political events were represented in the story. The novel’s setting is important as it was during this period that the cold war instigated by the US and USSR was making its way into the region. Moreover, to provide more historical context to the story, it was set a month before the September 12 1980 Turkish coup d’état which led to the overthrow of the 43rd government of Turkey; the coup d’état was an offshoot of the Cold War. These are further demonstrations of the clashes between Western and Eastern ideals and values that hound modern Turkey. For one, Istanbul, the muse of Pamuk’s oeuvre, has the interesting situation of being located at the crossroads of Western and Eastern culture. While these two cultures try to coexist, it is not uncommon to find them directly at odds with each other.
Beyond politics and history, one of the most extensively explored subjects was family dynamics. The family at the heart of the story, like most families, was imperfect. Its members have their own flaws but they nevertheless bring their own personalities into the story’s tapestry. Secrets also abound, some of which can destabilize the harmony of the household. As the past transitions into the present and as traditions clashes with the modern, intergenerational tension abound. They fight over petty stuff but rarely discuss their inner thoughts. But perhaps most important of all was how Pamuk transformed the house into an allegory. The house was not silent because it only had one occupant. The house witnessed several dark events, some even violent. However, because of differing views and perspectives, the house kept mum. Its silence was resounding. The house harbored these secrets. As the reader ruminates further, the Silent House can be viewed as an allegory for Turkey itself.
“Now that ninety years have gone by, I understand that all those memories and waits have filled my mind with the way sparkling water from hundreds of little faucets might fill a marble pool, and when in silence of a soft summer night I draw nearer to the coolness of the pool, I see my refection in the water, and I notice that I’m filled with my own self, and I want to puff and blow my image from the pool, so that nothing might tarnish the surface of that water, so pure and sparkling.”~ Orhan Pamuk, Silent House
Elsewhere, the novel grappled with religion. Dr. Selahattin Bey was an atheist who viewed religion as among the major factors that are detrimental to Turkey’s development. His atheist views were viewed unfavorably by his wife. Meanwhile, Hasan and the gang he joined were driven by Islam. Death was also ever-present, with a strange sudden-death disorder explaining the absence of a middle generation. This gave the story more layers. The differing personalities of the occupants of the silent house gave the story interesting textures. By using polyphonic voices to convey the story, Pamuk allowed readers to take a peek into the psychological profiles of the main characters. With a mix of streams of consciousness and inner monologues, Pamuk, through his eclectic cast of characters, ruminated on the past while reflecting on the present.
One of Pamuk’s earliest works, Silent House painted a very colorful and equally tumultuous portrait of modern Turkey. It is a dense read that grappled with a bevy of subjects, ranging from history to religion to politics. Family dynamics, memory, traditions, intergenerational tensions, and social classes were also explored in the novel. Technically, the novel’s execution was ambitious and innovative. The novel also greatly and extensively highlighted Pamuk’s capabilities as a writer and also his foresight. Hasan and his gang was a microcosm for Islam extremism that would unsettle global peace nearly three decades after the book’s publication. Silent House transcends time and is still presently relevant. The passage of time has not dulled the potent message it carried.
“Women scare me sometimes. They are like things you just can’t undestand, 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. They’re a little like death that way, except dressed like a prostitute that stands there smiling at you with a blue ribbon in her hair.”~ Orhan Pamuk, Silent House
Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 21%
Writing (25%) – 18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 10%
From 1901 to 2021, 118 writers won the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature. Of this number, only eight writers are of Asian origin. One of them was Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk who was given the nod by the Swedish Academy in 2006. Interestingly, I had no idea about this when I bought my first Pamuk novel, Snow, back in 2015; I wasn’t really too keen on literary awards back then. I ended up liking Snow although it was a little too complex for me. Nevertheless, knowing that Pamuk was a Nobel Laureate in Literature only fueled my desire to read more of his works. During the height of the pandemic, I read The Red-Haired Woman, his tenth novel, and just the second by Pamuk I read. It was a slender book and a middling story. This did not stop me from acquiring more of Pamuk’s works, among them Silent House which I made part of my 2022 Top 22 Reading List. Overall, it was an interesting story where family, politics, and history converged, somewhat very typical of Pamuk. It wasn’t perfect but it was still an absorbing read.
Author: Orhan Pamuk
Translator (from Turkish): Robert Finn
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Publishing Date: 2012 (1983)
Number of Pages: 402
Genre: Literary, Historical, Political
A moving story of a Turkish family gathering in the shadow of the impending military coup of 1980.
In an old mansion in a village near Istanbul, a widow awaits the annual visit of her grandchildren. She has lived in the village for decades, ever since her husband, an idealistic young doctor, first arrived to serve the poor fishermen. Now mostly bedridden, she is attended by her faithful servant Recep, a dwarf – and her late husband’s illegitimate son. But it is Recep’s nephew Hassan, a high-school dropout lately fallen in with right-wing nationalists, who will draw the family into Turkey’s century-long struggle for modernity.
About the Author
To learn more about the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature awardee and esteemed Turkish writer, click here.
I like his books, the best one I have read so far is Red-haired woman, I will have to check out Silent House too. Pamuk always makes me laugh, his sense of humor is the best!
Amazing! You have not missed the expressions, exactly set the review in the same tone as book depicted. I can imagine through your writing the pain, fear and silence. I have loved the questions in between the para to break. Your art of writing is like catching the finest star out of sky.