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Pamuk on the Eve

Jodi Hilton
Orhan Pamuk at the Museum of Innocence, Istanbul, May 2012
we’ll establish a brand-new world here, thinking and living things that are fresh, simple, happy, and free: a world of freedom such as the East has never seen, a paradise of logic on the face of the earth, I swear, Fatma, it will happen, and we’ll do it better than the West, we’ve seen their mistakes….

But when he is old and worn, with the great encyclopedia still unfinished, his vision has become crazier and darker:

When they understand that nothing comes from the hand of God, then they’ll see that fear and valor, crime and punishment, idleness and action, good and evil are all in their own hands…frightened to death at what passes through their own minds…at that very moment, they’ll hate me for having brought them to that point, but by then having no other recourse, desperate to free themselves from this terror, they’ll come running to me….

Grandly, he compares himself to Diderot and Rousseau.

After his death, Fatma thrusts everything that her husband has written—the scientific papers, the encyclopedia chapters, the philosophical essays—into the stove and burns them. This is one of the most touching and elaborate accounts in literature of such a personality as Selâhattin’s, the crusader for doubt or martyr for rationality. It was the Selâhattins, above all in the Catholic nations of the West, who created European liberalism as it exists today; the Selâhattins who supported the anticlerical republicanism that fought black-gowned superstition all over Catholic Europe in the sacred name of science.

But what was a Selâhattin doing in mid-twentieth-century Turkey? It’s helpful to remember why that anticlerical liberalism never touched two European nations in the century of its emergence: Poland and Ireland. Both were under foreign occupation, and in both the Catholic Church and its priesthood became solidly identified with the cause of national independence and freedom. Post-Ottoman Turkey could perhaps be said to have occupied itself, its invasion force taking the form of a fiercely authoritarian nationalism that offered almost no space between liberal criticism and treason. Atatürk’s revolution had set out to be anticlerical and “modernizing.” In retrospect, though, it was impossible that mass nationalism of that intensity should not eventually converge with deep-rooted and popular Islamic belief.

The “now” of the novel is at the height of the Turkish “troubles,” in about 1979 or possibly in the summer of 1980, only weeks before the military coup. Every day the papers report dozens of deaths in the streets of Turkish cities, as gangs who call each other “fascist” and “communist” slaughter their enemies with gun, knife, and club. It is a time like the last years of the Weimar Republic. The present no longer makes sense, the future is a storm cloud shot with lightning, and even the past refuses to answer the call of historians.

Faruk imagines composing a book out of the anecdotes in the archives, a book that would have no point and no causality but would consist simply of a stream of disconnected events in no meaningful order. This fantasy frightens him, and to regain his composure he sets off in the car to find the ruins of an old caravanserai that he used to visit as a child. But the ruins have disappeared, melting into the garbage overflowing from Turkish urban sprawl: shreds of paper and plastic, old tires and broken bottles, boards from a building site, “cement blocks, bricks, crumbling walls with political slogans scrawled over them.”

Later, at dinner in the “silent house,” he and Nilgün argue about the nature of reality. For her, as a socialist, everything that happens must have a definite cause and a definite effect. But her brother Faruk has lost his grip on objective certainties:

As soon as I think I see a causal link, I immediately sense that this is something my own mind has just imposed. At that moment, events start to resemble horrible worms. They jump around between the folds of my brain as though they were hanging in the void….

In a world that makes no sense, violence becomes a language. In Hasan’s nationalist gang, the older, tougher members accuse him of being a spy or, at best, a pathetic weakling who has fallen under the spell of a rich girl. Desperate to save his reputation, he blurts out that “I can’t be in love with that girl…. She’s a Communist.” How does he know? Because while stalking her he has noticed that every morning she buys the radical newspaper Cumhuriyet.

Now Mustafa, the gang leader, is interested and Hasan realizes that he has set off a train of events he can’t control. He has a useless daydream of how he could warn a grateful Nilgün not to come to the beach, but the next day he and Mustafa both wait for her as she buys her newspaper. Hasan is supposed to snatch it from her, but she refuses to stop and speak to him and his nerve fails. “Coward,” says Mustafa. They go back to the shop and tear up all the copies of Cumhuriyet and “the pictures of naked women” from “the sickening weekly porno magazines.” The shopkeeper is afraid of them. Hasan wants everyone—Mustafa, Nilgün, the whole world—to be afraid of him.

Metin, the youngest sibling among Selâhattin’s grandchildren, suffers his own steady humiliation. The spoiled teenagers with whom he moves have more money than he does, and drive gleaming foreign cars. To pursue pretty Ceylan and wean her from wealthy Fikret in his Alfa-Romeo, Metin has only the family’s unglamorous Anadol. But the Anadol shares the Darvinoǧlu talent for failure. When Ceylan is Metin’s passenger and he stamps on the gas to impress her, the car swerves off the road and stalls. When he gets it to a gas station for repair, the pouting Ceylan is rescued by Metin’s rival in his Alfa. When the engine revives, he pursues the Alfa until the Anadol suddenly dies on him again, this time on a steep slope in the middle of the night during a rainstorm. There, cursing and drenched, he is discovered by Mustafa and his gang, who sit in his car until the rain slackens, then take his ID card and his wallet and move on.

A hideous, senseless climax is approaching. Hasan returns to the beach and once again blocks Nilgün’s path as she tries to buy her newspaper. Does he want to kiss her, does he want her to be afraid of him? As she tries to run away from him, Hasan grabs her wrists. Nilgün shrieks: “You crazy fascist, leave me alone!”

So she really is a Communist?

By that she confessed that she was in fact working together with the others. At first I was really surprised, but then I recognized it was my job to give her the punishment she deserved, and so right then and there I started hitting her again and again.

When he has done his worst, Hasan runs away, leaving Recep the dwarf to carry Nilgün home. Within hours, she is dead. Her brothers will leave the “silent house” and return to Istanbul; Fatma will lie in her bed waiting for her own death; Hasan heads for the city. He knows now that the day will come when everyone will be afraid of him. And—though the novel does not say so—the tanks will move into the streets within weeks or perhaps only days.

As part of his “modernist” experiment, the young Pamuk wrote this novel as a series of interior monologues, both narrative and reflective. Each main character finds his or her voice several times in these pages. There is no “introduction”; the reader opens the book and is instantly accompanying an elderly dwarf going to a café somewhere in Turkey and worrying about himself and the company he keeps. Then the reader is in the bed of an imperious old lady who can’t sleep but wishes she could forget the past…. It’s strangely lifelike, this emerging familiarity with a group of people as slivers of knowledge about them slowly coagulate into recognizable “characters.” One might be joining a ship whose crew already know one another well, or learning what faces and stories lie behind the voices in a hospital ward.

Orhan Pamuk has returned to this technique in recent years. My Name Is Red also consists of first-person voices, this time from the reign of Sultan Murad III in the sixteenth century, but in the later novel there is an element of “detective” suspense. Behind one of these voices is an assassin, the anonymous killer of the imperial limners Elegant Effendi and Enishte Effendi, who must also be one of the characters who speak here under their own names.

Only one member of the family in Silent House is denied a voice. Curiously, Nilgün exists only as she is perceived and recorded by others. Apart from the fact that she is a sociology student, reads Turgenev, is tender with her difficult siblings, and is found violently attractive by Hasan, we know little about her. There is something odd about this, perhaps a private riddle belonging to the author.

After Silent House, the next novel that Orhan Pamuk published was The White Castle (1985). Its dedication reads: “To Nilgun Darvinoglu, a loving sister (1961–1980).”

The supposed editor of The White Castle, who also contributes a preface, is “Faruk Darvinoglu,” who is said to have found the story in the archives in 1982, two years after Nilgün’s death. What’s going on here may be a secret or a joke. But if it were a sign of Pamuk’s reluctance to let go of one of the most powerful and moving novels he has written, an early masterpiece, it would be easy to understand.


A ‘Son of Darwin’ in Turkey? April 25, 2013

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