October 2012

Arts & Letters

'Silent House' by Orhan Pamuk

By Alexandra Coghlan

Originally published in 1983, Orhan Pamuk’s second novel has only now been translated into English. It’s an oversight that gives us a curious illusion of familiarity, of divination even. We already know the books this early experiment in narrative will beget – the Borgesian polyphony of My Name is Red, the political radicalism of Snow – and, like meeting the parents of a dear friend or lover, the urge is to trace back and examine what you already know through this new source.

In this case it’s an urge that yields plenty of insights, revealing a future Nobel laureate still finding his story. Like his heroes Woolf and Proust before him, Pamuk discovers it in the act of storytelling, the process of fiction and fact-making itself.

Three siblings gather in the remote Turkish seaside town of Cennethisar one summer, visiting their grandmother, Fatma, and revisiting childhood memories. As tensions build to the military coup of September 1980, each sibling absorbs the violence and political ideologies surrounding them, weaving these anxieties in to the self-narrated chapters that bring voices back to the shuttered rooms of Fatma’s silent house.

While less sophisticated than Red’s web of speakers, the associative streams of consciousness in Silent House celebrate Pamuk’s ear for dialogue. It’s particularly keen at catching the extremes of age: the monosyllabic brutality of first love and unheeded bitterness of old age. The English translation has an American flavour – the aspirational language of teenagers who know that “people can’t be anything in Turkey”.

Pamuk paces familiar ground in this portrait of Turkey at the trampled junction of West and East. But just as young Hasan finds meaning and a talisman in his beloved Nilgün’s comb, so Pamuk himself treasures the discarded personal effects too trivial for official history, fashioning them into a fragile story of self-determination.

Pamuk has often described the novel as a Western form, inorganic to Turkey’s hybrid culture, and here in his jostling, echoing, overlapping narratives, he makes a first attempt to reclaim this literary space. The novel – a literary ruin of memories that blocks new thoughts as surely as Fatma’s mouldering house stands in the way of developers – cannot be knocked down, but can be freshly filled with life (and, yes, death too). Pamuk’s characters take hold of their stories with gentle insistence, prying them out of the hands of the political, the epic, and preserving them instead as gleaming, vividly personal fragments.

Alexandra Coghlan

Alexandra Coghlan is the classical music critic for the New Statesman. She has written on the arts for the Guardian and Prospect.

'Silent House', Orhan Pamuk, Hamish Hamilton; $29.99
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