It is initially unsettling to read a new novel by an acclaimed author that is not really new at all, merely available in an English translation for the first time. Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Prize winner, wrote Silent House way back in 1983. It was his second novel, and helped to cement his reputation as the rising star of Turkish fiction. It has since been translated into a variety of European languages, and has already lived its literary life as a multilingual triumph and mused-over example of Pamuk’s ‘early’ period. It is rather thrilling for us monoglot Brits to be able now to share in the experience.
Silent House’s English publication history is fitting in the sense that it is a novel itself preoccupied with the place in time of its characters, and of Turkey itself. It is narrated by three young people (Hasan, Metin and Faruk), and two from older generations (the ‘sneaky dwarf’ Recep, and the matriarch of the family, the sad, terrifying Fatma). And its setting is rather specific, the town of Cennethisar in the summer of 1980, just before the September Turkish coup d’état, which came in response to a country increasingly ‘ripped to pieces from bullets and bombs’ in the hands of the combative ‘right-wingers’ and ‘leftists’.
Against this fervid, brutal background, each narrator takes it in turn to describe the week-long visit of three grandchildren (Faruk, Metin, and a sweetly ideological girl called Nilgun) to the titular home of Fatma. Into the mix is thrown Hasan, a desperate young man, all hot and bothered with lust towards Nilgun and fearful contempt towards the Communist threat. His uncle is Recep, the bastard son of Fatma, who strikes a tragically dignified note in his attempts to hold the family together.
Pamuk has spoken fondly of Silent House, noting that ‘there is something about my youth and spirit in it’. At a late point, he seems even to appear himself, offstage, described as one of the ‘old gang’ in the neighbourhood: ‘Orhan’s supposedly writing a novel’. It is perhaps his hard-earned experience that makes this such a clear-eyed, unflinching tribute to the growing pains of spirited youth.
Although Hasan and Metin both finally act with horrendous brutality, it is their pathetic preoccupations — and attempts at socialising — that linger longest in the mind. The ‘terrorist’ Hasan moonily buys the same comb as Nilgun, just to be close to her; Metin muses, in a manner redolent of adolescents in all historical periods, ‘how I hated myself and being lonely and how nobody at my aunt’s house loved me, how everybody has money except me’.
Indeed, there are few things as timeless as teenagers. And the real strength of the novel is Pamuk’s ability to describe, in passages of clear brilliance, similar universal truths. So, amid the fluster and bluster of the grandchildren, we also listen to Fatma and Recep — both cut off from society — indulging in their memories (‘my pains, my past and my thoughts’) as a means of staving off loneliness.
Pamuk, in his Nobel acceptance speech, said that ‘all true literature rises from this childish, hopeful certainty that all people resemble each other’. Published 30 years ago in Turkish, Silent House is unquestionably true literature, and winning evidence of the youthful (but not childish) rise of Orhan Pamuk to great things.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 20 October 2012