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Book Review: ‘Silent House’ by Orhan Pamuk

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Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. Of course, given the Nobel award committee’s sometimes abysmal choices over the years, having won the award isn’t necessarily an indication of a writer’s excellence. Pamuk is one prize winner it’s not necessary to worry about. He is a perceptive observer of the human condition and a consummate stylist, a writer whose genius is unquestioned now, and I have every expectation will stand the test of time.

Silent House, a 1983 novel first translated into English last year and now available in paperback from Vintage Books, may be an early work, but it is a clear indication that an important literary voice is emerging. Set in an upscale coastal tourist spot developed from what was once a small fishing village during a major period of social upheaval, as three grandchildren arrive from Istanbul to see their invalid grandmother and visit the graves of their parents.

9780307958556.340x340-75 The narrative shifts through individual chapters devoted to the interior monologues of five distinct characters.Two of the grandchildren, a dissolute professor of history and a young high school student with social aspirations, serve as narrators. They are joined by the grandmother, a bitter unhappy woman; the illegitimate son of her deceased husband, a dwarf who is living with her as a servant; and his nephew, a student and nationalist thug. The characters, their aspirations and limitations, provide a rich panorama of the changing Turkish political and social structure as it relates to a variety of individuals on different social strata.

The narrative describes a period when Turkey is nearing the end of a long march to modernity on something of a Western model. For some it is important to defend the old values; for some it is important to change with the times. For some science and math are paramount; for some it is the history and poetry of the past — the pragmatism of the West, the mystic romance of the East. And for some life offers only impossible choices, in effect no choice at all.

The social cultural themes are layered over two unhappy love stories in which the two younger narrators fall in love with girls who are out of their league. Metin, the grandson, chases after a rich young girl who is a member of the local excuse for a jet set. With neither the money nor the sophistication to have any real attraction for her, his romantic dreams are doomed from the start. Hassan, the nephew is obsessed with the granddaughter who is a year older, and, although they played together as children, she has moved beyond him intellectually. Moreover she is a Communist, and he is a nationalist thug. In effect, both boys are victims of the expectations raised by the social changes of the era, expectations that can only lead to tragedy.

In a virtuoso performance, Pamuk manages to give each of his narrators a distinct voice, voices captured skillfully in Robert Finn’s translation. Although individual narrators are always identified in the chapter titles, there is never any mistaking the speaker. And it isn’t only the content, each of the five has a style of his or her own.

Silent House may not be Pamuk at his mature best, but if it isn’t, it comes mighty close. It is a rewarding read about a people in a place and time that unfortunately most Western readers know very little about.

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About Jack Goodstein