The Telegraph
Friday , October 19 , 2012
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SILENT HOUSE By Orhan Pamuk, Penguin, Rs 599

History, which frames the plot of Silent House, plays a funny game with the novel. It is Orhan Pamuk’s second novel, written in 1983, but it has become available to readers of English through translation just this year. The accident is peculiar, for it is the confusions, somersaults, over-determinations and perceptions of history that form the story’s substance.

The novel is set in Cennethisar, a seaside town-turned-resort 50 minutes from Istanbul, where three young people, Faruk, Nilgün and Metin, come for a week on their regular summertime visit to their 90-year-old grandmother, Fatma. Only the summer that Pamuk chooses to write about is that of 1980, just a few months before the coup that turned Turkey into a military state. An apparently simple family visit seems poised on the edge of a precipice as aspirations, ideologies and politics diverge and clash around the siblings who, each lost in his or her own obsession, pull away from one another. At the heart of the restless, discontented, anchorless, driven and increasingly violent time stands the silent house, where a bitter Fatma is looked after by the dwarf, Recep. She hates him with almost a physical hatred, because he is an affront to her rigid piety, being the fruit of “disgusting” sin, fathered by her husband, Selâhattin, on a village woman who once helped about the house.

The house hides conflict and violence. As Faruk drives into the garden with his brother and sister that summer, he suddenly has a “strange feeling”: “[I]t was as if there were terrible things in this house that I had never apprehended owing to familiarity… I peered into Grandmother and Recep’s damp, deadly interior darkness…” The darkness holds the abandoned laundry room, their grandfather’s laboratory with vials and tweezers, books and papers, bugs and lizards pinned to boards, and a dusty skull Faruk picks up and gazes at.

Faruk is an unlikely Hamlet, although he does call up the ghost of Selâhattin, the doctor driven out of Istanbul for his politics. In a way, he is the core of the bitterness and violence that haunts the house. His love of knowledge leads him to a disbelief in god, and he slowly loses his sense of reality in the struggle to write an encyclopedia holding universal knowledge. He is determined to awaken the East from its slumber so that it can become equal to the West. His wife begins to hate him, as do his patients, when he tries to explain why god does not exist.

This tussle between belief and disbelief, faith and knowledge, tradition and modernity, the East and the West, has always engaged Pamuk, and it is obvious in this early novel as well. The different ideologies depicted in Silent House spring from this tension. The communists have overrun Tuzla, we are told, while Nilgün, too, is a “leftist”, buying a communist newspaper and reading Russian authors in a bikini on the beach every day. Drawn irresistibly to her is Hasan, her childhood companion and son of Ismail, Recep’s crippled brother who lives on top of the hill. It is suggested that the disabilities of both Recep and Ismail were the result of a violent beating by Fatma when they were little.

Hasan is part of a group of rigid and frightening young men, one of whom explains their ideology: “[T]wo superpowers. America and the Soviets, want to divide up the world, and that Jew Marx lies when he says that what makes the world go round is what he called the class struggle… the center of the world was the Middle East and the key to the Middle East was Turkey…” An apprentice to extremism, Hasan must pay for his obsession with a communist from a privileged class, as must Metin, the youngest sibling, fascinated with the idle rich and dreaming of a life in America.

Pamuk lets five characters, Recep, Fatma, Hasan, Faruk and Metin, narrate the story in turn through 32 chapters, creating a partly disjointed, occasionally overlapping effect, as time accelerates feverishly with Hasan and Metin and slows down to almost a standstill with Fatma: “Things in silence. A half-full pitcher, the water in it standing motionless. When I want to drink I remove the glass cover, fill it, listening to and watching the water flow; the glass tinkles, the water runs; cool air rises; it’s unique; it fascinates me… but I don’t drink. Not yet. You have to be careful using up things that make the time pass.” Things take on a different life in Fatma’s consciousness, as specific and intriguing as the comb Hasan steals from Nilgün’s bag, as though looking forward to the birth of The Museum of Innocence.

But it is the past that crowds into Fatma’s mind, while the present refuses to move. Pamuk captures the contrasting timelines by counterposing his characters’ internal monologues with their conversations. The technique emphasizes the sense of alienation of which Recep, forever in search of friendship, is particularly aware. Everyone is caught in his own universe.

If Nilgün, Hasan and Metin seek, and fail, to create new histories, Faruk carries the burden of the past, although not in the way his grandmother does. A historian fascinated with archival work, he grows dependent on alcohol like his grandfather and father as he seeks to “understand clearly, not just history, but also the world and life itself”. Like Selâhattin too, he dreams of a gigantic work that shall never come to pass, and Pamuk uses him to portray the sense of futility of the time. In search of traces of an old caravanserai, Faruk “walked toward the shanties, alongside the walls, between the railroad and the creek, over dead plants poisoned by chemical spills and brambles not yet dead; [he] saw the skull of a sheep and a bone… alongside a barbed-wire fence, and [he] kicked the bone and a tin can”. Decline and the threat of violence brood over the house as it stands stricken anew into silence and tragedy at the end.