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
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.