November 2012

Josh Zajdman


Silent House by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Robert Finn

Silent House should not be your introduction to Orhan Pamuk in the same way that Roderick Hudson should not be your introduction to Henry James. Both are second novels, with fleeting moments of interest, a great deal of plodding pacing and a showing of the narrative hand. Both were followed by much stronger novels that better displayed the talents of their creators -- The White Castle and The American, respectively. If a reader is to appreciate Silent House for what it does offer, a little context is necessary. The novel was originally published in 1983, and only now translated and released in English. It's not bad, but it's early and limited work from a novelist having just received his writer's license. To further the metaphor, he jerks, or he speeds, nearly taking out the interest of us readerly pedestrians on several occasions. It lacks the skillful and nuanced depiction of political feud, romance, passion, and melancholy that are expertly mixed to make a winsome, affecting, and unforgettable Pamukian cocktail in later novels like My Name is Red; Snow; and The Museum of Innocence, Pamuk's first novel since winning the Nobel Prize in 2006. Moreover, Silent House is just not as fun or mysterious to read as a typical Pamuk novel, lacking the flourishes and intrigue of his other carefully constructed works.

I don't speak Turkish, but I have read all of Pamuk's other work, and I wondered whether this novel suffered particularly from Robert Finn's translation. Finn's a diplomat. While he's probably able to speak the language, he lacks the poetry of Pamuk's most frequent translator, Maureen Freely, or early translators like Victoria Holbrook or Guneli Gun. On just a base sentence level, the book, for the most part, lacks beauty. Yet its characters are compelling, almost uniformly as a result of their unpleasantness. That's a trademark of the Pamuk that would parade across the world stage twenty years later, and all the more evident and crucial as his stylistic panache is decidedly lacking.

The eponymous house isn't some monster-infested horror movie type place, not a Bates Motel by the Bosporus. There's no fog or mystery surrounding it. It's home to Fatma, a bitter, hostile, slightly deluded Turkish Miss Havisham, and Recep, her dwarf caretaker and illegitimate son of her dead, extremely delusional, hostile, and alcoholic ex-husband, Selahattin. You with me? Every summer, Fatma anticipates the visit of her three grandchildren, whom she really doesn't like. However, it allows for Fatma to redirect her venom. Soon after the novel's beginning, Faruk, Nilgun, and Metin arrive. In short, Faruk is an alcoholic (following father and grandfather) divorced historian; Nilgun is a young leftist (later derided and humiliated for buying a Communist newspaper); and Metin is a young, impressionable student and tutor looking for love (read: sex) and money. On the outskirts and gradually making their presence felt are Recep's brother, Ismail; his lazy, ultraconservative nationalist son, Hasan (who's in love with Nilgun); and the somewhat ectoplasmic Selahattin. In a facile bit of novelistic trickery, each of the book's thirty-two chapters are lived or recounted from the perspective of one of these characters. As a result, one is often left wishing for more of a through-line in the narrative, and less of a flexing of the narrative muscle. Each time I began a new chapter, it was with a touch of resignation. Oh, okay, Faruk's turn. Whereas this approach can work in certain novels or story collections, it seems choppy and poorly constructed in Silent House, a misnomer if ever there was one.

This is a house silent only in name and rife with unhappiness, criticism, rage, and resentment. Of particular interest and import within the novel is the character of Fatma, a woman constantly rehashing her terrible past, ensconced in an uncertain present riddled by health issues and loneliness, and fearful of an ever encroaching death. Exactly halfway through the book, in a chapter entitled "Grandmother Listens to the Night," we finally get a character to look past himself or herself and get a bit of poetical description instead of shoddy first-person reflection.

When all that horrible hullabaloo lets up, when all that noise coming from the beach, the motorboats, the wailing kids, the drunken cursing, the songs, radios, and televisions, quiet down, and the last car goes screaming past, I slowly get up from my bed and stand just behind my shutters listening to the outdoors: nobody's there, they're all exhausted and have gone to sleep.

Fatma's life, just like her house, isn't silent. Instead, it's pensive and nearly bursting with lament, shame, sadness, and squashed hopes. In a feeling all too readily identifiable, books and reading offer Fatma a modicum of solace toward the end of the novel.           

Because, as I would always tell myself so many years later, lying here in my bed: 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, isn't that so, Fatma?

You can't go home again. But if you have to, holding a book close may help. There's a power in that concept that became a recurring motif in the work of Pamuk, once an apprentice and now a master.

Silent House by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Robert Finn
ISBN: 978-0307700285
352 pages