‘A fantastic representation of a family sharing similar doubts, fears, and flaws’ – Silent House by Orhan Pamuk

shopAlthough long a household name and much admired writer in his native Turkey, Pamuk endured a relative international obscurity until his Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. On the back of this new notoriety he released The Museum of Innocence in 2008. Many consider this to be his greatest work, and he has rightly been watched with a very close eye since its release. Some may be surprised, then, that the follow up is not a new work, but in fact a first English-language translation of Silent House, a novel published in Turkey back in 1983. Rather than being a disappointment, though, this fact only helps to highlight what we’ve all been missing for the last three decades.

Silent House takes place in a Turkey on the brink of a military coup in 1980. Although this is never directly stated in the novel, the tension of a country with an uncertain future is clear to see on every page. Not only are there daily news reports of fighting between socialist and nationalist factions, but, on the very surface of the narrative, there are the differences of opinion, belief, and lifestyle choices that separate the family at the centre of the book.

The story revolves around the annual visit of three siblings to their lonely and somewhat paranoid grandmother. But there are no loving family scenes in here. There’s no sharing meals in front of a fire, no regaling tales of the children’s success while grandma passes out the biscuits. This is a family, like the country they inhabit, on the edge. Nilgun, the granddaughter of the family, is a leftist activist, making no effort to hide her beliefs when buying the socialist newspapers, despite the none-to-subtle presence of nationalist gangs out to crush the socialists. A member one of those gangs is Hasan, Nilgun’s childhood friend. In the present of the novel, Hasan is somewhat sexually fixated on Nilgun, neither of them realising that they are related. And these are just the complications between two of the characters, before we even begin to consider the ill grandmother, the dwarf servant who is actually an illegitimate member of the family, the alcoholic brother, and the other brother desperate to escape Turkey, falling into the increasingly present traps of Americanisation through booze and Elvis Presley. The anxieties that these closely knit lives engender are palpable, but, until the final stages of the novel, remain simmering below the surface. The reader knows that they’ll erupt though, and nobody should ever suspect a happy ending.

Silent House is a novel about family, but as you can see, it’s a family as divided as the land they occupy. Pamuk manages this division superbly. With each chapter focusing on a different one of the five main protagonists, and with each having a wildly different and equally successful voice and tone, Pamuk effortlessly represents the loneliness, obsessive nature, and search for a sense of identity, that each of these characters is built around. He offers a fantastic representation of a family sharing similar doubts, fears, and flaws, but all being too wrapped up to help each other. This comes to a head with the totally avoidable tragedy that concludes the novel, but is present in the main events of every character’s tale.

Any Cop?: Silent House demonstrates that Pamuk’s storytelling panache is nothing new. Written and published at a time of tension in Turkey, the novel also represents the tendency in his writing for a bold abrasiveness that has seen him protested against in the past, and even resulted in assassination attempts against him. But it’s the boldness that shines through in his writing. There’s something daring about the way he uses this family to represent what Turkey was about at the time.

Fran Slater

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