World and the family

Lead review

World and the family

In ‘Silent House’, Pamuk proves that he is as much a commentator as he is a storyteller, writes Shreekumar Varma

Step into Pamuk’s world and you’re in for a bit, and then some. The blazing riot of My Name Is Red where love, murder, art and the deeper questions of life seduce you with swirl and colour like the marketplaces and flowing miniatures in the book; recollection and rebuilding from the rubble of a romantic ruin in The Museum of Innocence, where love and loss weave mosaics of light and shadow, where Pamuk serves up an over-large chunk of his own family context and world; The New Life, in which a mysterious book infuses new life and enthusiasm into the protagonist and a host of others, while its detractors are out to destroy it (even as Pamuk’s reader himself is left to imagine the book’s content); Istanbul: Memories and the City, a grey memoir, liberally spattered with dark, often murky, photographs, that comes across as a monument to loss.

Having read his books in that order, the one under review arrives unexpectedly, an old work translated only now.

His second book, Silent House, was written in 1983 and is set three years earlier, a month before Turkey’s 12th September military coup. It’s a surprising book in that it shows prescience in many of its presumptions and also ushers in Pamuk’s trademark candour, since the book was written during the army-orchestrated rule. How does the early Pamuk compare? It’s a book that promises the Pamuk of today but also shows us the path he took to reach here.

As we listen in on the minutely regurgitated, opaque and endless interior monologues of the aged matriarch Fatma, her sleepless travails and murmurings against her dead doctor-husband Selâhattin, there are moments that leave us breathless with the profusion of detail, the insignifia! Settling down later, we find these pieces fading back in to complete the jigsaw of remembrance, filling up an elaborate cradle that Pamuk needs to nurture his narrative.

Besides Fatma, the only other inhabitant of the old, crumbling family mansion is Recep the dwarf — butler, listener, factotum, and also her husband’s son from a servant. He attends to her every need, makes meals and keeps the house in order, wanders the streets at night, wondering at lighted windows, knowing the next door he opens there’ll be people laughing at him. Being a bastard, he’s on the threshold of belonging, both here and there, neither here nor there; in a sense the ideal sutradhar.

The old woman’s grandchildren Faruk, Nilgun and Metin come to visit, triggering the story. The story is told in voices. Fatma, Recep, Faruk, Metin and Recep’s nephew Hasan are the speakers, one per chapter, voices that often meld, collide and intrude. Pamuk’s characters personify the conflict in the book. Faruk is a professor and historian, dredging up stories from the past, probing the relevance of random history (“Ignoring the fact that the stories had to have some use, I was copying a huge mass of words and figures…”).
Nilgun is a leftist activist while Hasan is a right wing extremist. Metin wants to make lots of money and escape to the US.

Their coming together in this meagre resort where rich youngsters race cars, drink, dance and laze on the beach works on the novel at many levels. Add Hasan. It’s he who thumps the story to its murderous conclusion, even more frightening because it’s so casual, mixing ideology with personal peeve, because it shows the ease with which you can walk away from the taking of a life, you only have to give it a label. His portrayal foreshadows the changing face of world history. His final warning “Watch out for me from now! Be afraid!” is the war cry that will soon fill many parts of the world.

Pamuk’s Silent House echoes with their disgruntled voices. Fatma’s is probably the most enduring. Remembering a drunken husband obsessed with completing an encyclopaedia of everything, aching as he sells off her jewellery, listening in disbelief as he propounds the “terrible truth” that lies behind the difference between East and West. And now imagining the goings-on downstairs as her grandchildren interact with the bastard dwarf.
She hangs on pervasively like a half-dislodged sky, a cusp between yesterday and today, dreading tomorrow. But her world is safer, it’s only in her mind, no one tells her what’s happening now.

Silent House is an elaborately wrought story working at many levels. We see the empty joys of idle youth, whipping up drastic pursuits to fulfil themselves, while old age lies motionless on a bed of useless regrets. Budding idealism can explode at the touch of a whim. Relationships within and outside the family morph and wane, crossing boundaries. Rejection is met with arrogance and violence, and love is no guarantee for the beloved’s safety. It works most at the political level, right from the uneasy displacement of Selâhattin and Fatma all the way to the easy flight of Hasan. For, Pamuk is as much a commentator as he is a storyteller.

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