Silent House by Orhan Pamuk
By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis
Category: Literary Fiction
Author: Orhan Pamuk
Format: Hardcover, 344 pages
Publisher: Knopf Canada
Pub Date: October 9, 2012
Summary from publisher:
In an old mansion in Cennethisar (formerly a fishing village, now a posh resort near Istanbul) the old widow Fatma awaits the annual summer visit of her grandchildren: Faruk, a dissipated failed historian; his sensitive leftist sister, Nilgun; and the younger grandson, Metin, a high school student drawn to the fast life of the nouveaux riches, who dreams of going to America. The widow 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 the doctor’s illegitimate son. Mistress and servant share memories, and grievances, of those early years. But it is Recep’s cousin Hassan, a high school dropout, and fervent right-wing nationalist, who will draw the visiting family into the growing political cataclysm, in this spell-binding novel depicting Turkey’s tumultuous century-long struggle for modernity.
Book Review by Zara from The Bibliotaphe Closet:
Silent House, by Nobel Prize in Literature winner, Orhan Pamuk, is a dramatic and detailed story of a Turkish family bound by a dark history beginning in Cennethisar, a former village near Istanbul.
The novel is driven by its characters more so than its plot through a series of stream-of-conscious, inner forms of dialogue that recall sporadic memories and reveal the characters’ deeply rooted biases and fears.
There is Recep Efendi, a 55-year-old dwarf who resides in the Darvinğlu mansion as a servant and loyal caregiver to Fatma Karatash-Darvinğlu, a 90-year-old, bedridden grandmother whom he refers to as Madam.
And Fatma Darvinğlu , herself, a devout, religious, upper class woman whose age and obstinate beliefs chiselled her into a cold, proud, and bitter woman who punishes those around her due to her grief and disappointment in love, marriage, righteousness, and the inauthenticity of the modern world, which she misunderstands, fears, and loathes.
The two of them together, await the arrival of her now grown grandchildren for their annual summer visit at Shore Avenue, No. 12, Cennethisar: Faruk, recently divorced and an associate professor and avid historian whose love for the Gezbe archives and its contained past inspires him to want to write a story of no obvious connections or interpretations; Nilgun, a beautiful woman whose warm affection, intelligence and leftist beliefs bring her unwanted attention and danger; and Metin, who considers himself the most practical of his siblings and an intelligent tutor of mathematics whose talent to multiply any pair of two-digit numbers in his head ostracize him from his pretentious group of friends.
As the story slowly unravels, the reader learns about the grievances caused by Fatma’s ambitious and high-strung husband whose sole obsession to write and publish a scientific encyclopedia drives his marriage and finances to the ground.
This hunger for knowledge is eventually passed down to their son, Doğan, who aspired to be more like his father, became a direct administrator in the east, and signed up for politics. Much to Fatma’s opinion and dismay, like his father, he intrinsically felt responsible “for all the crimes and sins and injustice in [the] world,” at which point she wished he didn’t feel that way so that he would listen to her instead and not suffer, nor be agitated.
A parallel story also focuses on Recep’s nephew, his brother, Ismail’s troubled son, Hasan, whose deep insecurities cause him to not only fail English and Mathematics in school, which influences him to drop-out and remain unemployed, but to also get involved in toxic relationships that lead him to a path of inevitable destruction. Instead of listening to his worried parents and applying himself in his studies at school, he surrounds himself with an extremist, nationalist group whose bullying antics encourage him to join them in terrorizing their community.
The tone of the book is much like the archival collection, which Faruk is fascinated with and describes readily in the novel. It seems that the author, Pamuk, was intentional in creating this metaphor and correlation between archival history and reading and writing, and even more specifically, the reading and writing of Silent House itself as a story:
Just as, after a long sea journey, an all-oppressing fog suddenly lifts to reveal with astonishing clarity every tree, stone, and bird on a stretch of shore, so, too, as I read on, from individual pages, the millions of lives and stories jumbled together suddenly took discrete form in my mind. – p. 83
…history’s nothing, but a story… – p.170
I intended the book to be read: as a completely aimless stroll… – p.166.
There is even a line in the book in which Orhan, himself, is referred to:
Orhan’s supposedly writing a novel. – p. 288
Silent House is indeed written in such a way that the details about characters are depicted as subtle hints that are sporadically spread out throughout the text in unexpected ways. The reader must actively read the novel and pay close attention to such details in order to set a framework of the story’s personal history. And in this sense, Pamuk writes the novel in the way in which his character, Faruk, would have desired to write his own novel: one that would be “a continuous feat of ‘representation,’” – p.165, laid out with little or no connections.
The connections, however, exist within the story, but the reader must actively search them out to understand the complexity of the characters themselves and the history of Istanbul at the time when an impending military coup took over the area in 1980. The political turbulence of the time is also a theme in the novel and one that truly afflicted Seİahattin Darvinoğlu’s sensibility.
The silence in the book, as expressed in its title, I think, is one that refers to the repression each character suffers from their own personal struggles against the injustices of their circumstances against the grandeur of their desires.
The silence can also speak of a common theme throughout the book: the hidden loneliness that each character harbours about their displacement in the world they live in and the gap felt in their yearning for change whether it be found through power, relationship, history, or politics.
The abrupt silence in which the book also refers to is one that occurs at the very end of the book, which in its muted volume, ironically resounds a loud message of the shift that occurs in the characters’ lives.
For Recep, his loneliness extends to his illiteracy, his discomfort in talking, and his desperate wish to be able to converse with anyone—let alone his natural and desperate need for friendship.
His only consolation, or rather his only form of coping through his loneliness, is found in his constant effort to please everyone by taking care of their needs through acts of servitude, rather than ever considering himself. And even though he thinks of himself naive and unworthy, Recep has a depth that is not only compassionate, humble, and generous, but filled with an honest awareness of the “exchange of empty words,” and the inauthenticity and insignificance of the things that go on around him:
…everything’s beyond the power of our speech and our words. – p.123
…words are useless… – p.173
But what can you see in thoughts? Pain, grief, hope, curiosity, longing… – p.176
And while he receives wise advice from his father,
Recep: be open-minded and free, and only trust your own intelligence, do you understand? – p.310,
Recep, himself, devalues his own intelligence and works hard to live not only within the status-quo, but to go as far as to allow others to dictate his limitations, lifestyle, and self-worth.
Seİahattin Darvinoğlu’s loneliness stems from his unique, progressive views of science and atheism he holds and finds himself advocating amidst a people who adamantly adhere to strict, conservative, religious beliefs, and what Seİahattin considers to be “superstitious stories and myths.”
His loneliness is further solidified by his wife, Fatma’s stubborn wilfulness to defy him with disbelief, hardness, and silence.
His overwhelming desire and compulsion to not only publish a scientific encyclopedia, but also share his knowledge with others in order to change the thought process of the east on a global scale isolates him in a way that his community was unwilling to accept his dogmas or his doctoral help, which eventually led him to the bottle because he was so grieved by society’s “foolishness” and “simpleton ideas.”
To him, “[t]he source of all knowledge is curiosity,” which he spoke of to Recep, but which in the end consumed him and left him to be a scattered, over-ambitious, indecisive, and emotional character.
Fatma, too, in her apathy and bitterness was essentially hardened by a life of personal disappointment, ignorance, and severe conservatism, and religious doctrine. While she loves the family to which she was born and misses her son, Doğan, her loathing of what she considered to be her grandchildren’s “shamelessness,” her husband’s “devilry,” his “bastard” children, the loss of her inherited dowry, which she treasured far more than any of her relationships, as well as her fear, disgust, and overall apathy towards the modernity of society as opposed to what she remembers of her past—suffers from a deep indignation and isolation that closes her off to other people, those that still make an effort to be a part of her life. Her loneliness is one that is not only deep-rooted, but one that she fears, yet clings to, and even justifies by comparing herself to the inanimate objects in her room:
The water, the pitcher, the keys, the handkerchief, the peach, the cologne, the peach…They all sit there, just like me, all around me in the quiet emptiness, they creak they rattle, in the silence of the night, they seem to be purifying themselves of sin, of guilt. 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. – p.228
The remaining secondary characters in the novel: Faruk, Metin, Nilgun, and Hasan, do all share their own forms of loneliness, insecurities, and silence through repression of their true feelings.
The Silent House by Orhan Pamuk is a novel of considerable emotional struggle and hardship, an intricate story of character development, historical challenges, and mature craftmanship—well-deserving of its nomination for the Man Asian Literary Prize for 2012.
Characters: 3.5 stars
Pacing: 2.5 stars
Cover Design: 2.5 stars
Plot: 3 stars
A special thanks to A. Knopf Canada for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an unpaid, honest review.
About the author:
Orhan Pamuk is a Turkish novelist, screenwriter, academic and recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature. One of Turkey’s most prominent novelists, his work has sold over eleven million books in sixty languages, making him the country’s best-selling writer.
Born in Istanbul, Pamuk is Robert Yik-Fong Tam Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, where he teaches comparative literature and writing. His novels include The White Castle, The Black Book, The New Life, My Name Is Red and Snow.
As well as the Nobel Prize in Literature (the first Nobel Prize to be awarded to a Turkish citizen), Pamuk is the recipient of numerous other literary awards. My Name Is Red won the 2002 Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger, 2002 Premio Grinzane Cavour and 2003 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
Have you read any of Orhan Pamuk’s novels? Which ones? Which one is your favourite?
Have you read any fiction novels that take place in Istanbul, Turkey?
What do you find most compelling about character-driven novels?
Which book do you think will win the Man Asian Literary Award for 2013?