Ambitious work gives a taste of talent to come

Silent House

Orhan Pamuk (translated by Robert Finn)

Faber & Faber, £18.99;

Kindle, $17.21 (USA/Europe)

Review: Billy O’Callaghan

Orhan Pamuk is one of the world’s most widely acclaimed literary figures, a Nobel Prize-winning writer and masterful storyteller who spins complex and fearless narratives that attempt to make sense of the turbulent history, ancient and otherwise, of his native Turkey.

His invectives on such subjects as the 1915 Armenian genocide and the slaughter of the Kurds have shone a light on the darker corners of his nation’s past, and seen him subjected to hate campaigns, put on trial and forced to flee the country.

Silent House, the new Pamuk novel, is in fact not new at all. First published almost 30 years ago, it finally makes its way to English-language audiences via a Robert Finn translation.

In the summer of 1980, with Turkey on the brink of a military coup, three siblings, Faruk, Metin and Nilgun, come to the coastal village of Cennethisar to visit Fatma, their aged grandmother. Fatma’s husband, Selahattin, an atheistic doctor, brought her to the village decades earlier after falling foul of the political status quo, built a grand house and then proceeded to write an encyclopaedia of the world and everything in it, an enterprise that slowly broke them, financially and spiritually. Long-widowed, she is now looked after by one of her husband’s two illegitimate sons, a dwarf named Recep. She treats Recep abominably, holding him responsible for all of the father’s sins, yet he is faithful and subservient at all times.

Pamuk’s ambitions are not small. In employing multiple intertwining narratives, the story builds in waves, characters are allowed develop naturally and the shadows of the past reveal themselves by degrees.

This convoluted family is Turkey in microcosm, and the novel’s big question is one of identity. Faruk, a failed historian whose wife has left him and who drinks heavily, trawls local archives in the hope of uncovering something that will change his life. Metin runs with rich friends, has fallen in love with a society girl, looks constantly westward and longs to measure up. Nilgun, gentle-hearted, sees her future in the idealistic direction of communism. And then there is Hasan, the son of Recep’s crippled brother, a young student who spends his nights as part of a nationalist group, practicing intimidation and vandalism and already on a path to so much worse. He is in love with Metin, his cousin and childhood friend, but her political affiliation is a problem that will have devastating repercussions.

The natural temptation to measure Pamuk’s Silent House against the benchmarks set by such later novels as My Name Is Red, Snow and The Museum of Innocence, feels, in this situation at least, somewhat unfair. Silent House needs to be read for what it is: a talented young author’s second published work, ambitious, intelligent, and with an impressive, clear-eyed view of a moment in time and a society still in violent flux. It is a fully-fledged and well-conceived novel. Yet it also reveals a writer still feeling his way towards the greatness he will soon attain, reaching for the stars but falling inevitably, if tantalisingly, short.


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