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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 of his own country’s never-ending troubles and come to despise its backwardness, only to find himself gazing back with love and longing after a move to Europe.” In provincial Kars, the poet seems to find that the whole “Europeanizing” project forced on Turkey almost a century ago by Kemal Atatürk is foundering. “Liberal” values are defended by a repressive state apparatus feared by all but respected by almost nobody. A group of girls in Kars, barred from university because they refuse to take off their Islamic headscarves, commits suicide. Martyrs—or victims of family and political pressure? Or, as the deputy governor of the town suggests, were they simply unhappy, in the way that half the women of Turkey were unhappy?

Pamuk is writing fiction, not prophecy. In the year that Snow was published, Turkey elected Recep Tayyip Erdoğan prime minister; his moderate Islamism has turned out to be far from the extremism Pamuk accurately sensed under the surface of Turkish life. Nonetheless, Pamuk’s books were being burned in public only two years later, as he was targeted by an organized ultra-nationalist campaign for referring to the massacres of Armenians and Kurds.

Silent House is a much earlier work than Snow. Pamuk’s second novel, it was published in Turkish in 1983 (why a fiction of such obvious brilliance was not translated into English until the twenty-first century remains a mystery). Here already are concerns that were to reappear in later books. The “eve” in this case is the coming of fascism, against the background of the murderous street battles between leftist (“Communist”) and nationalist gangs that convulsed Turkey in the later 1970s. The crisis culminated in the army putsch of September 1980.

Those struggles and that disaster offered Orhan Pamuk (who had to abandon a political novel and do military service) an earlier version of the tragic arguments about identity that still in changing forms persist. Turkey yes!—but what sort of Turkey? The characters in Silent House are brooding over much the same alternatives that obsessed Russians in Turgenev’s time. To Westernize, to head toward a ruthlessly materialist “European” destiny in which all the spiritual and communitarian values of the nation may be washed away in the name of “liberalism” and “progress”? Or—like the Slavophils and “Eurasians” in old Russia—to uproot foreign influences and fortify a “Turkey for Turks,” to invest in a xenophobic nationalism (backed up by a highly selective version of Islam) that regards all forms of dissent as treachery?

Silent House is set in a small town on the Sea of Marmara, once a fishing village but now, increasingly, a dormitory for commuters to Istanbul. In one of the oldest houses lives Fatma, an ancient bedridden widow. She is cared for by a much-abused dwarf who is, obscurely, part of her family. As the story begins, she is waiting for her three grandchildren, the Darvinoǧlu siblings, to arrive from Istanbul for their annual visit and their pilgrimage to the family graves. Metin, the youngest, is in his final year at high school, interested in fast cars, partying, and making money. Nilgün, a clever girl studying sociology in her first university year, holds strongly left-wing views. Faruk, the eldest, is a historian in love with the distant past but endlessly vacillating in his search for the right “story” for a book. With a failed marriage behind him, Faruk is putting on weight and drinking seriously too much raki.

But this middle-class family, with its latest generation showing clear signs of downward mobility, has a longer history as a clan of losers. The figure who is really the central character of the book, Fatma’s late husband Selâhattin, died many years before the story opens, and yet the memory of him—his dreams and his acts—pervades the “silent house” and all who live in or visit it. Selâhattin is a shape who haunts a hundred European and Russian novels: a frustrated medical doctor who longs for the triumph of science over superstition, an anticlerical liberal who rages against the passive backwardness around him, a lonely pioneer of progress who decides to compile an encyclopedia of all human knowledge and terrorizes his conventional wife for her mindless faith.

The dwarf Recep and his lame brother Ismail are his children by a servant girl. Their disabilities are the result of the savage beatings they suffered from jealous Fatma as infants; she hates the sight of the patient Recep but has become completely dependent on him in her old age. Ismail limps about the town selling lottery tickets, but his own son Hasan has drifted into a street gang of violent nationalists who beat up shopkeepers for protection money and threaten “rich kids” in flashy cars.

One of these “rich kids” is Nilgün, although the reality is that the family no longer has wealth (it was squandered long ago by Selâhattin); they drove from Istanbul in an Anadol (an underpowered old Turkish model) rather than a Mercedes. But the family still has class. Hasan, Nilgün’s half-cousin, used to play with her in the garden of the “silent house” when they were both children. Now she is friendly to him when they meet, but he senses that she belongs to another, superior world that is closed to him. She attracts him and angers him at once. Hasan begins to stalk and spy on Nilgün when she goes to the beach in the morning, and soon fancies that he is in love with her. The older boys in his gang mock him for losing his head over a “society girl” and question his devotion to the cause. Hasan must prove himself, and when he discovers that every morning Nilgün buys a left-wing newspaper from the beach kiosk, he sees a chance to do so.

Faruk spends the day in the archives, reading through the court reports of petty lawsuits in the sixteenth century. All are entertaining slices of “real” history, but none qualifies as the story he tells himself he is seeking. He laboriously copies case after case into his notebook, perhaps just as a way of making himself feel that he has earned the next cigarette, the next drink. Metin, who has vainly urged his grandmother to knock down the “silent house” and sell the site for development, goes off with his pack of boys and girls to drink, dance, and race their cars through the traffic on the Ankara highway.

Back at the house, Fatma the grandmother lies in bed and remembers. A succession of brilliantly devised interior monologues, the thoughts of Fatma and the thoughts of Selâhattin overlapping one another, reveal the withering of a marriage and the loneliness of a provincial intellectual who believes that he holds the secret of modern life and human freedom. Using that overlapping technique and letting the incoherent associations of flowing thought form their own patterns, Pamuk was venturing into new, decidedly non-Turgenevian territory. Silent House may at first seem a straightforward novel, almost free of the elaboration and detail and verbal fireworks that Pamuk often uses in his later work, but its structure is more artful than the simple narrative style suggests.

In one of his 2009 Charles Eliot Norton lectures (“The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist”), Orhan Pamuk spoke of his own development as a writer and confessed that

I forced myself to be modernist and experimental. The Silent House, my second novel, shows influences ranging from Faulkner to Woolf, from the French nouveau roman to the Latin American novel….

(Virginia Woolf especially; I’m not sure where the Latin Americans went.) Recollection and present action slip in and out of tenses, as Fatma stares at her bedroom ceiling:

I feel sorry for you, dear girl, but what can I do, because the dwarf has already pulled the wool over your eyes, he does that, he’s sneaky…. My head fell exhausted on the pillow, and I thought, Poor me, of that terrible and pathetic thing that kept me from sleeping at night.

As he grows older, Selâhattin loses his patients. A doctor who roars at them that God does not exist and that they must cast away the shackles of faith does not reassure them. The costly equipment bought for his experiments, to verify classic scientific proofs, rusts or gathers dust. He is drinking terribly, but his fanatical trust in science only grows stronger. In the early years, when Fatma becomes pregnant, he swears that

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