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Orhan Pamuk: Sessiz ev (Silent House)

This is one of Pamuk’s earlier novels which has been available in Arabic, Bosnian, Croatian, Danish, Chinese, French, German, Greek, Korean, Polish, Russian and Swedish but has only just (end of 2012) been released in English translation. Pamuk himself has said that it was his most popular novel with Turkish youth and, as it deals, to a great extent, with Turkish youth, it is easy to see why. It is set in the week before the Turkish military coup of 1980 and the main story concerns a group of three siblings visiting their grandmother in Cennethisar in Gebze for a week. The three grandchildren are Faruk, Metin and Nilgün. Faruk, the eldest, is a professor of history, who spends time in the local archives, digging out details of obscure events from the past. He is an alcoholic (like his late father), which is one of the reasons his wife left him. He has brought his two siblings to their grandmother’s house, in his old and decrepit car. Metin has worked to save up money and wants to go to the USA to become rich but he is really here because he is in love with Ceylan, who lives nearby and who is definitely not in love with him. His feelings for Ceylan will form one of the plots of the novel. Nilgün, the youngest, has left-wing views but is happy to spend the week lying on the beach, reading, though she does show a lot of consideration for her grandmother. She is studying sociology. The grandmother, Fatma, is an embittered old woman. Even now, many years after his death, she is still arguing with her late husband, Selâhattin. Selâhattin had been a successful doctor in Istanbul but he also had strong left-wing views and was eventually exiled to Cennethisar, where he lived for the rest of his life. His modern views extended to medicine and he found his approach to medicine did not go down well with the local population, who still believed in folkloric and herbal remedies, so that he eventually had to close his medical business. With considerable difficulty, he persuaded Fatma to give him her fine collection of jewellery, which he sold at considerable loss. His time was spent writing a comprehensive encyclopaedia, modelled on French sources, which, he maintained, when published, would revolutionise the country and would bring him great fame. It was not finished before his death and has now disappeared, probably destroyed by Fatma, who was opposed to its irreligious approach.

Fatma lives alone with Recep, a dwarf. Recep and his brother, Ismail, a cripple, were fathered by Selâhattin with a local woman. It was Selâhattin and Fatma’s son (their only child), Doğan, who rescued Recep and Ismail from their mother’s poverty and invited them to live in the house, after Selâhattin’s death. Recep stayed and became a servant in the house where he still lives. He is continually abused by Fatma but she is very dependent on him. Ismail managed to get some money from Doğan and moved out and married. He now sells lottery tickets. His son, Hasan, is very much involved with a group of nationalists, who paint slogans all over the town, harass the local tradespeople and who threaten those that they consider Communist. Ismail is constantly pushing Hasan to study, in order to make something of himself and he vacillates between his studies and uneasy participation in the nationalist group. More importantly, he is madly in love with Nilgün, who does not reciprocate his feelings. His (mild) stalking of Nilgün is also a plot element.

The story is told in the first person by various of the participants, specifically Recep, Fatma, Hasan, Faruk and Metin. Recep is, of course, not too happy with his lot nor with Fatma’s treatment of him but manages to survive and keep going. Fatma, naturally, lives in the past, going over her issues with Selâhattin and arguing with him. Hasan shows his love for Nilgün but also his involvement with the nationalist group, where he is definitely the junior partner. Faruk is obsessed with the archives, while Metin spends time with his group of friends and, in particular, Ceylan. Meanwhile, with the political situation worsening and the clash between the nationalists and communists, things deteriorate and the final outcome is disastrous.

This is certainly not of the same standard as his later novels and perhaps is more likely to appeal to a Turkish than a Western audience, with its focus on the then concerns of the younger generation in Turkey. The general approach and style is realist, contrasting strongly with the more magic realism style of his later novels. Nevertheless, it is an interesting novel to read about the situation in Turkey and how the young people, at least some of them, were moving away from the old-fashioned conservatism to a more Western style with premarital sex, drink and drugs and Elvis Presley records.

Publishing history

First published in 1983 by Can Yayınları
First English translation 2012 by Knopf