Pamuk on the Eve

Silent House

by Orhan Pamuk, translated from the Turkish by Robert Finn
Knopf, 334 pp., $26.95
An anonymous photograph from Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence in Istanbul, which displays his vast collection of images, objects, and ephemera that relate to his novel of the same name. A catalog of the museum’s collection, The Innocence of Objects, has just been published by Abrams.

What does it mean to write “on the eve” fiction? In the first place, it means situating a novel’s characters in a wider landscape that is in social and political movement. There is, usually, nothing they can do to arrest or reverse these changes. They stand as outlines against a sky that is growing darker as a day of some kind draws to its end. (Fiction—or at least first-class fiction—in which “the eve” is presaging a dawn of bliss and fulfillment is rare indeed.) Everything that the characters do, or dream of, or fail to do is suffused with this awareness that the times have lost conviction, that proclamations of moral certainty have dried up to querulous mutters, that something indifferent to them all is slouching toward Bethlehem to be born.

Russian nineteenth-century fiction is the obvious example—especially the work of Turgenev, and Orhan Pamuk is soused, marinated in Turgenev. Not just in his On the Eve, but above all, I think, in Fathers and Sons with its panorama of a dying world, of a landowner culture that can no longer believe in itself but fears the approaching, unknown future, of the futility of those who think they can board and steer that future. It’s no surprise to find that in Silent House the girl student Nilgün is reading Fathers and Sons. The grave of her idealistic father in this slatternly little resort on the Sea of Marmara recalls the grave of Turgenev’s failed nihilist Yevgeny Bazarov, lost in the cemetery of a remote Russian village.

Pamuk is a novelist of gigantic, almost alarming diversity. There seems to be no sort of fiction he has not tackled, from the historical novel My Name Is Red (1998)—now probably his best-known work—to the complex Museum of Innocence (2008), and it would be unfair to his polymorphism to see all his work as in some way monochrome or tinged with the same autumnal colors of an “end time.” And yet Pamuk’s most powerful fiction about contemporary Turkey almost always has that “Russian” background of a decaying political order, a bewildered population, an ominous new force invading empty minds and releasing fantasies of cruelty and violence.

Snow (2002), set in the eastern Turkish city of Kars, takes place “on the eve” of a surge of Islamic revivalism, intolerant and sometimes murderous. For Snow, Pamuk worked harder on his research than most journalists, filling notebooks with what he saw, read, or heard in conversations in the teahouses of Kars. His central character is a lovable but indecisive poet from Istanbul, a Turgenevian who “like the Russian writer…had tired…

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