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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Silent House’

- - Thursday, November 15, 2012

SILENT HOUSE
By Orhan Pamuk
Translated from Turkish by Robert Finn
Alfred A.Knopf, $26.95, 352 pages

When Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006 he was already in the international spotlight. A year earlier he had been put on trial for asserting that there had been mass killing of Armenians and Kurds in Turkey. Even though he did not explicitly blame Turkey for the deaths, this was an offense against a law forbidding Turks to defame Turkey. It was no such thing, he said. His intention was to highlight the limits on free speech in his country.

The combination of his trial and the award of the world's most prestigious literary prize brought Mr. Pamuk widespread media attention in the West. He was, however, no stranger to literary prizes -- among them the 1984 Madarali Novel Prize for his second novel "Silent House." Previously unavailable in English, this neatly crafted tale now appears in a translation by Robert Finn.

The silent house of the title was built in a fishing village near Istanbul in the early 20th century by an idealist doctor at work on an encyclopedia designed to free his countrymen from the traditions -- especially religious belief -- that he thought held them and Turkey back. His nonagenarian widow Fatma, who never had the least sympathy with his views, still lives in the house, along with his illegitimate son, a dwarf called Recep, who is her much-abused servant.

At the beginning of "Silent House," Fatma's three grandchildren, Faruk, Nilgun and Metin, arrive to visit the family graves and to vacation by the ocean. They are all trying to figure their future. Faruk, a historian, is prey to the alcoholism that runs in the family so, though he is fascinated by the minutiae of village life four centuries ago, he is too unfocused to shape what he learns in the local archives into a historical narrative.

Faruk's younger brother, Metin, packed with energy and angst, resents his relative poverty. He exacerbates his problems by hanging out with the rich children whose families have made the village a weekend spot for Istanbul's prosperous class. To level the playing field, he fantasizes about going to America or about pulling down the old house and building vacation apartments on the site. Nilgun, more charming than either of her brothers, is the political one in the family, believing that communism is the way forward for Turkey. In contrast, Hasan, Recep's nephew and therefore a cousin of sorts, boosts his ego by tagging along with a vindictive bunch of nationalist ideologues.

Their problems will be familiar to readers of Mr. Pamuk's later novels such as "My Name Is Red" (2001) and "The Museum of Innocence" (2008), which similarly feature confusions about identity and generational clashes fueled by conflicting values. Metin, for example, follows his encyclopedist grandfather in adversely comparing Turkey to the West. Fatma, too, is a warrior in the battle of tradition and modernity, never budging from the opinions formed in her early-20th-century girlhood.

"Silent House" is composed of chapters each told from the point of view of one of the characters. The artfully managed effect shows them isolated in their own universes -- all ruled by discontent. It also shows the political and social strains in Turkey in the run-up to the military coup of 1980s, with rival philosophies uncompromisingly heading to national conflict and personal tragedy.

The structure of the book also allows Mr. Pamuk to develop his characters subtly. They are always more than mouthpieces for particular points of view. His portrayal of Fatma is rich in nuance, showing her protected youth in the years before World War I but not resting her rigid resistance to modernity on her upbringing but on its intersection with her self-centered personality. Metin's disgruntlement with his life is vividly realized in some truly hair-raising joy-riding stunts. Most dramatically, the Islamist Hasan, who occupies more and more of the center stage as the novel progresses, is a case study in how the young male restlessness that he shares with Metin trips into explosive anger that sends shrapnel flying in every direction.

If "Silent House" appeals to Orhan Pamuk's admirers because it shows the persistence of his themes and talents, the portrayal of Hasan foretells of exploits of recent years. Powered by rejection and resentment, Hasan warns that everyone will be shocked by the events that he and his cohort will bring to pass. They'll be on television, he says. That could have sounded like wishful boasting when "Silent House" was published in 1983. Not anymore. Reading this novel will illuminate some of the sources of Islamist ideology, and sketch the problems of Turkey, whose massive empire did not disappear until less than a century ago. Yet it is neither a polemic nor a history. It's a satisfying work of fiction by one of the best novelists writing today.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.