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Understanding the Forest, One Tree at a Time

Aram Bakshian, Jr. reviews an early masterpiece by the Turkish Nobel Laureate.

By From the March 2013 issue

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Silent House
By Orhan Pamuk
(Alfred A. Knopf, 334 pages, $26.95)

About halfway through Silent House, Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk has one of his characters—a rather pathetic failed history professor named Faruk—complain that, “I had to find a little story, to make a convincing tale! The structure of our brain probably has to change if we are ever to see and understand clearly, not just our history, but also the world and life itself. That passion for listening to stories leads us astray every time, dragging us off to a world of fantasy, even as we continue to live in one of flesh and blood…”

But Faruk is wrong, proven so by the very book he is part of. Silent House, only now appearing in an English translation, was Mr. Pamuk’s second novel, completed when he was only 30 years old. This was before he had developed the convoluted, highly stylized technique—one might almost call it neo-rococo—that makes some of his more famous later works, tours de force like The White Castle and My Name Is Red, both rewarding and laborious reading. By contrast, Silent House is a simple, straightforward “little story.” Most of its live action takes place under and around a single roof during a brief summer family reunion, albeit one that draws on three generations of haunting, and occasionally haunted, familial memories. It is these memories, seen from the different perspectives of a matriarch, her dead husband, and their offspring—both legitimate and illegitimate—that bridge and illuminate three generations of roiling Turkish history.

Although Mr. Pamuk has said that Snow, a gripping, slightly surreal tale of a fictitious coup d’état attempt set in the wastes of Anatolia, was his “first and last political novel,” Silent House is, in its own way, a political saga. It chronicles the decline of the Ottoman Empire, the fatally flawed “Young Turk” attempt at imperial revival that ended in mass murder and humiliating defeat, the rise of a new Turkish republic led by the larger-than-life figure of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk—a remarkable strongman who died before the concrete of his national vision had time to set—and the subsequent mix of progress and decay, hope and disillusionment, patriotism and alienation, that have characterized the Turkish nation ever since.

BESIDES WHICH, Silent House is a good novel in its own right. The action is cleverly plotted and the characters are sharply drawn, with a depth of psychological insight and a breadth of empathy that one might not have expected in a 30-year-old author just cutting his novelistic teeth. The emotion is true, the ironic humor is telling but not distracting, and the pace never flags. Silent House flips the old cliché about not being able to see the forest for the trees. It teaches us that to truly understand a forest, you must first understand individual trees. Sadly, this is a lesson most of its characters understand no better than the real-life ideologues of the left and right, who tend to think of people as inert building material for their abstract social constructs.

And then there is the enigmatic allure of Turkey itself, so little felt and appreciated in the West. Before the fall of the Iron Curtain, people used to say that Vienna was two different cities. If you approached it from the Communist-dominated East, Vienna seemed to be a bustling, modern metropolis compared to anything Hungary, Poland, or Czechoslovakia had to offer. But if you approached it from the other side, Vienna felt like a charming but antiquated provincial relic, more of a museum than a living center of Western culture and commerce. The same is true, though in a very different way, of contemporary Turkey.

Straddling the great divide between Europe and Asia, Christendom and Islam, Turkey wears two faces. Viewed from the East, it looks like a prosperous pillar of stability and civic order, especially when compared to any of its Muslim neighbors. Viewed from Western Europe, however, it presents a different picture, that of a country dangerously divided: on the one hand, a pampered and often corrupt pseudo-Western economic and social elite relying on the Turkish military to protect both its privileges and its secular values; on the other hand, a growingly militant and sometimes violent mass movement of Islamists—many of them poor urban immigrants from the backward, neglected countryside—determined to purge their country of alien “impurity” and turn it into a theocracy by whatever means necessary.

While there is a lot to this bifurcated view of Turkey, it is only part of the truth. It ignores what might well be called Turkey’s “Silent Majority”: the millions of decent, ordinary Turks—almost all of them observant but law-abiding Muslims—who want to live in a fair, orderly society, earn a decent living, and improve economic and educational opportunities for their children. They also resent seeing their traditional social values being ridiculed by an effete, privileged elite while simultaneously being perverted into violence and barbarism by fanatics claiming to act in the name of the God they worship.

 Whether consciously or intuitively, Mr. Pamuk seems to understand all this. He expresses it through a cast of characters that covers the full range of Turkish society, from a humble, impoverished seller of lottery tickets and his family to the spoiled children of a new class of affluent Turks who equate sophistication and modernity with a superficial imitation of the worst characteristics of Euro-trash materialism. So much so that, by novel’s end, the most admirable character left standing—the nearest thing to a heroine has already died a sad and purposeless death—is a much-put-upon dwarf named Recep. Despite his grotesque physical form, the dutiful Recep embodies many of the sturdy, decent qualities of ordinary Turks—loyalty, steadiness, compassion, and courage—that have kept their country afloat in the stormiest of times, and may yet see it through to better days.

In the meantime, readers can enjoy Silent House not just for the valuable lessons it teaches, but also for the sheer joy of Mr. Pamuk’s unaffected, exuberant early style, curiously reminiscent of Charles Dickens in his youthful prime, and rendered into flawless, flowing English by translator Robert Finn.

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About the Author

Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan and writes frequently on politics, history, gastronomy, and the arts.