Tuesday, January 25, 2022

A Moral Tale

Political and social tensions of Turkey come to light through the story of a family and a dwarf in Orhan Pamuk’s early book Silent House

Written by Dilip Bobb |
October 13, 2012 3:32:22 am

BooK: Silent House

Author: Orhan Pamuk

Publisher: Penguin

Price: Rs. 599

Pages: 334

He is the most celebrated individual in Turkey,not just as a world famous author and its sole Nobel laureate,but someone whose pronouncements on politics and social trends are taken as seriously as the Grand Vizier’s was during the Ottoman Empire. He gained that status even before the Swedish Academy handed him the most coveted prize in literature and it was mainly because of books like Silent House,his second novel. Written back in 1983,it is now translated and available for the first time to the English reading public.

Essentially a family saga that has elements of an autobiography,it is equally a commentary on Turkey’s political paroxysms and the social fabric of the time. Pamuk came from a large family and he uses that experience to add reality to the fictional license involved in fleshing out a complex cast of characters. His first book,Cevdet Bey and his Sons,was also a family saga and the two works put him firmly atop Turkey’s literary totem pole. He later admitted that Silent House was largely inspired by his grandmother’s monologues when he was a youngster.

It is perhaps no coincidence that a grandmother is a key character in this novel. She is a nonagenarian widow,Fatma Darvinoglu,who lives in a derelict villa in a seaside village near Istanbul. Virtually bedridden,she is looked after by a loyal servant Recep,and the high point of her life is the annual summer visit of her three grandchildren. The book is really divided into chapters featuring each of them,and that adds multiple layers to the saga. The eldest is Faruk,a failed historian. Then there is Nilgun,his sister,attracted to the Communist Party and its militant postures. The youngest is Metin,wild and woolly headed,eager to imitate his peer group,rich kids who drink,take drugs and look to America for inspiration.

There are others who deserve separate chapters,namely Recep,a dwarf who is actually uncle to the siblings,being the illegitimate son of Fatma’s late husband. And then there is Hassan,Recep’s nephew,a right-wing Nationalist,whose radical views add to the family tensions that evolve over the course of this book. It’s a novel written for the times,when Turkey’s politics was at a crucial crossroad as was its middle and upper class,striving to be part of the West while trapped between competing ideologies and its Islamic roots. Pamuk brings out the political and social tensions through the siblings,their hopes and fears and the ideological baggage that weighs them down,but it is really the dwarf,perceptive,unobtrusive,avuncular and influential,who becomes the pivot around which the separate strands of the story evolve and come together.

The best parts of the book are the relationship between Recep and the irritable,sharp-tongued widow he has served so faithfully. Their conversations on life,the past,on food,the siblings and the rapid changes taking Turkey towards modernity offer an insight into Pamuk’s mastery of his craft and why he was considered worthy of the Nobel. In its citation,the Academy said: “In the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city,(Istanbul),he has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.” Pamuk would later say of the inspiration for Silent House: “I spent my childhood in a large family surrounded by uncles and aunts. I enjoy describing crowded family gatherings — the meals they eat together,the feuds,and the quarrels.”

He does that with great effect,bridging the divide between dreams and reality,past and present,imagination and history,through the eight major characters,with their dreams and limitations. Pamuk’s oft-heard belief that “history’s nothing but a story” lightens what is a rather depressing story. This book may lack the authority and elegance of his later works but it shows why he is such an iconic figure in his own country. In this book,Silent House becomes a Tower of Babel,a morality tale as well as a sharply satirical analysis of a country,and families,going through a painful crisis of identity.

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