I knew of Orhan Pamuk as a political thinker and activist, and had followed his troubled career. I knew he was a writer, but I had never read any of his books. When my copy of Silent House arrived there was a quote on the dust cover from a reviewer who wrote about another of his novels, The Museum of Innocence, that “Pamuk has created a work concerning romantic love worthy to stand in the company of Lolita, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina”. That’s a strong claim, and I was dubious about it, but I had great hopes of Silent House. If a man can write a novel worthy to stand beside Madame Bovary, then I thought I was going to enjoy Silent House.
The novel describes the life of an old woman, a widow grandmother, living alone in a house in Turkey, cared for by a dwarf, illegitimate offspring of her dead husband. She is visited by her young relations.
Silent House is difficult. The first problem is the five narrators, and it’s fortunate that each chapter has a chapter heading that tells you not only what is going to happen, but also who the narrator is, which is just as well as it is often difficult to distinguish some of them. It’s also helpful that the chapter heading is repeated on each page, as halfway through a chapter you can be wondering who was speaking. Some of them are usually distinct: Recep, the dwarf, and Grandmother, but I wasn’t always sure if I was listening to Hasan or Faruk. There’s only one woman as a narrator, but even so she often speaks and thinks like her brothers.
This business of chapter headings is interesting. They’re a relatively modern phenomenon, post-modern, in fact, although Dickens used them, but for a completely different reason: his stories were published in parts, and chapter headings helped to bring the reader back to where they were in the novel. I tend to think that chapter headings indicate a failure: the writer can’t be confident of his ability to keep the reader with him. Indeed, chapters themselves are artificial units, and many writers have abandoned them completely.
It’s clear what Silent House is about: the conflict between the conservative tradition and modernising secularism in Turkish society, seen through the eyes of disparate members of this family. The characters verge on formulaic, clichés even. Grandmother represents the conservative strand of Islam, resenting her husband’s iconoclasm, the younger people a whole gamut of undeveloped beliefs from right-wing authoritarianism (Hasan) to revolutionary (Nilgün). The speech and actions of the younger people are often naive and embarrassing, such as Hasan searching through Nilgün’s bag and taking her green comb, but it’s believable: it’s what a foolish young man would do. The conversation between the young people in one of Metin’s chapters, in which one of the girls, Ceylan, treats Metin in a very off-hand and unkind way (not that he doesn’t deserve it) rings true.
But in the end, what does it amount to? A portrait of life in Turkey just before one of those periodic upheavals that have marked her progress towards a modern state. I found it hard work. Was it well written? I thought it was very clumsy in places, but then it’s a translation, and an author is completely at the mercy of his translators, and this translator is not very competent. Does the multi-narrator device succeed? I couldn’t make up my mind. I often got lost, but that might have been my failing (I don’t really think it was). After all, this man did win a Nobel Prize for Literature. But this was a very early novel. One reviewer in a national newspaper wondered if this book would ever have been translated if he hadn’t won the Nobel Prize. I wish now that I had read another of his novels, such as The Museum of Innocence, or My Name is Red, which I am told are much better.