Early Work by Pamuk Signals His Later Obsessions


By Daphne Abeel

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

The new publication of a novel by Nobel Prize-winning author, Orhan Pamuk, is not truly a new book. Silent House, expertly translated into English by Robert Finn, was first published in Turkish in 1983. Pamuk, now in his late 50s, was likely still in his 20s when he wrote it, and it should be viewed in its context as an early or even juvenile work, which, in many respects, prefigures many of the author’s later preoccupations and obsessions.

The political and historical background of the story is the lead-up to the mili- tary coup of the Turkish gov- ernment which took place in 1982. The action of the novel revolves around a visit by three young people to their grand- mother, Fatma, who lives in a crumbling mansion on the shores of the Sea of Marmara, an hour’s drive from Turkey’s capital, Istanbul. They come each year to honor her and to visit their grandfather’s grave.

Fatma, in her 80s, now lives alone in her dilapidated house, save for the companionship and service of Recep, a dwarf, who also happens to be the illegitimate son of her deceased husband, Selahattin. Their uneasy, codependent relationship is based on habit, need and uncomfortable circumstance. It is revealed that Selahattin fathered two chil- dren with a servant woman. The children were at first exiled to a remote village, but eventually brought back into the family fold, by Dogan, the legitimate son, who took pity on them. While Recep works as Fatma’s servant, his brother, Ismail, who sells lottery tickets, has built a house nearby, and has a son, Hasan, whose political connections will eventually draw the family into the nationalists’ struggle to control the future of Turkey.

The three grandchildren, Faruk, Metin and their sister, Nilgun, are still on the cusp of adult- hood, still not fully formed as adults or fully responsible for their lives. Faruk, the eldest, an obese alcoholic, has chosen to be a historian, and he pursues his profession obsessively, but erratically, delving into obscure archives, taking notes, in a vain attempt to capture his elected subject. He has been married, but his wife has left him and he muses often on the pointless- ness of his task.

At one point, he thinks, “There must be more to history, I thought, than just copying things

down and linking a string of events together to make a story. Maybe it was like this: looking for the causes of a series of events, we look to other events to compare them with, still, and on and on until we find that our entire lives would- n’t suffice to get to the bottom of so many facts. We have to leave off the task somewhere, expecting others to continue from where we left off, but no sooner do they begin than they decide all our explanations are wrong. And so there always remains important work to be done.”

Nilgun, a pretty university student, flirts ambiguously with men and just as ambiguous- ly, with communism, buying the party’s news- paper without becoming seriously committed to the cause.

Metin, the youngest, is a party boy, hanging out with his friends, drinking and smoking, half in love in a puppy dog way with Ceylan, who brushes him off as an immature suitor. He dreams of moving to America and wishes his grandmother would pull down the old house and build an apartment house, which could bring in some money for the family. The story is told in the voices of the various characters in alternating chapters, although the voice of each main character is often interrupted by the voice of another, and the read- er must remain alert to the subtle shifts in tone that indicate that a different person is speaking. A Chekhovian sense of terminal doom and gloom hangs over the scene as it is clear that the family, although well-born and even gilded in some sense, is on the decline as is the town of Cennethisar to which Fatma and Selahattin were exiled due to his falling out with Talat Pasha. Prior to his death, Selahattin passed his days working on an encyclopedia, which he was convinced would contain all knowledge about the world. He, too, was a heavy drinker, and it is plain to see that his son, Faruk, is following in his father’s aimless footsteps.

The town itself is changing. Once dotted with fields and cherry orchards, it has become the playground of tourists and a second home destination for the wealthy from Istanbul. Fatma frequently mourns the appearance of the “new concrete houses” and the men barbecuing at their grills on weekends.

Pamuk’s most recent novel, The Museum of Innocence, published in English in 2009, echoes in many respects some of the intellectual and technical aspects of this much earlier work. Pamuk is entranced by objects and by series and collections of objects. He often documents the amassing of objects to substantiate the reality of his story.

He has, in fact, founded an actual Museum of Innocence in Istanbul, which he is filling with “objects from the daily life in Istanbul in the second half of the 20th century.” In a statement he recently issued to explain his interest in cre- ating the museum, he said, “I began to buy a large number of objects from the handful of shops that constituted [the] flea market of the time and wrote my novel based on all these things bought and acquired, taking great plea- sure in describing them.”

In Silent House, he frequently refers to innu- merable series of objects. A single example, and there are many, is when Faruk stands in his father’s office contemplating, “…hundreds of lit- tle vials, pieces of broken glass, trunks, pieces of bone thrown into a box, old newspapers, rusty scissors, tweezers, French books of anato- my and medicine, boxes full of paper, pictures of birds and airplanes tacked to a board…” and etcetera. One can only surmise that these are the sorts of items Pamuk is putting on display in his Museum of Innocence.

Pamuk is now known as one of the Turkish intellectuals who has acknowledged the Armenian Genocide, but in this early novel, there is only one inconsequential reference to an Armenian printer, who might have been cho- sen to print Selahattin’s encyclopedia, if it had ever been finished.

While Turkey’s domestic politics are an undercurrent of this story, Pamuk does not fail to comment on the eternal schism in Turkey between the East and the West, which persists to this day. Fatma spies on her husband’s scrib- bling to discover he has written “…the East’s continued slumber in the deep and despicable darkness of the Middle Ages had not led us, a handful of intellectuals, towards despair but, on the contrary, toward a great enthusiasm for work, because what was obvious was that we were not obliged to take all this knowledge and transport it from there to here, but to discover it all over again, to close the gap of centuries between East and West in a shorter time.”

Fans of Pamuk may not find this his most compelling book, but it has importance in the context of his entire oeuvre. It is a portrait of his near contemporaries written when he was still a young man and paints a panoply of Turkish youth in a swiftly changing social and political environment. It is also a statement of his artistic and aesthetic commitment.

Whereas history may prove meaningless, the book remains important. As Fatma thinks on the very last page, “You can’t start out again in life, that’s a carriage ride you only take once, but with a book in your hand, no matter how confusing and perplexing it may be, once you’ve finished it, you can always go back to the begin- ning; if you like, you can read it through again, in order to figure out what you couldn’t under- stand before, in order to understand life….”

If that is Pamuk’s sales pitch for his own craft, it’s a pretty good one.