I have never been to Istanbul, but by all accounts it is among the liveliest places on earth. It thrives even in the busted teens of this century, as if the youthful Istanbullus thronging its many vibrant cafes along the Bosporus were thumbing their noses at the broke Europeans who have gone to great lengths to keep them out for a decade or longer.
But there is another Istanbul, of my imagination. This great city of domes and minarets sits uncomfortably at the cusp of Europe and Asia, not sure of where it belongs. It is a brooding place of grand edifices, mourning its lost glory of being the seat of a vast empire, now reduced to a pariah among its prosperous European neighbours. It feels embarrassed by its long Islamic cultural heritage and at the same time, fears modern scientific Western ways as unknown. Welcome to the capital of melancholia, created by its most famous living son, Orhan Pamuk.
Such is the literary prowess of the 2006 Nobel Laureate that the city of his memories supplants the real one in the reader’s mind. And the sorrow somehow is not depressing at all. It becomes instead an elevating experience for the narrator and the audience alike.
Silent House is Pamuk’s second novel, published in Turkish in 1983. The three decade hiatus in an English translation becoming available is serendipitous; I am not sure I would have derived as much pleasure from reading it had I not been exposed to Istanbul and The Museum of Innocence before.
The house in reference is in Cennethisar, a town an hour out of Istanbul, on the sea. It belongs to the late Dr Seláhattin Darvinoglu, where his aged widow Fatma lives in not-so splendid isolation. The good doctor, an ardent if naive moderniser, exiled himself and his lady to this villa some 70 years ago. Fatma distrusts everything modern and has never gone back to the metropolis. She thinks Istanbul to be sinful. She is looked after, as is the house, by Recep the dwarf, the doctor’s illegitimate son. Her three grandchildren from her dead son Dogun, Faruk the historian, his sister the pretty Nilgun and the youngest Metin, come visiting from Istanbul for a week every summer. The novel covers their visit in 1980.
These are turbulent times in Turkey. The country is on the verge of a military coup. Even the otherwise quiet suburb is not free of strife. Young thugs calling themselves nationalists roam the streets. They extort money from scared shopkeepers by raising the spectre of communists and threatening violence. Uncertainty looms large.
The events are not so important — nothing much happens anyway, except for the dark denouement — as are the mental states and thought processes of the cast of characters Pamuk so skilfully assembles. He employs a very effective device of all major dramatis personae except Nilgun taking turns as narrators of the 32 sections of the book. They are in constant conversation, either with other characters or with themselves.
Everyone carries an unbearable burden of some personal sadness. Fatma has led a long loveless life, but secretly envies her many friends in the social whirl in the city, whose obituary notices she carefully preserves. Faruk fancies himself to be in the arms of the matronly muse of history, but his career is not going anywhere, his wife has left him, he is overweight and drinks too much. Nilgun is attracted to fashionable left-wing thought and in turn is the object of attraction of not always savoury characters.
Metin is obsessed about making it in the real world. He earns money by tutoring “the retards” of the well-off in the city. He wants very much to belong to the young hip crowd. He would like to go to America. He detests the family house and wants the old lady to agree to build apartments on the plot.
The most rounded-out and dignified person in the book, Recep, carries on stoically with his burdens of a parentage never acknowledged, an education never received, providing care never appreciated and derision for his deformity never abated. His loutish nephew Hasan knows only humdrum life is in store for him but does not wish it and instead runs with the nationalist hoodlums.
Thanks to Istanbul, we know something of Pamuk’s extended family and their physical and emotional environment. Silent House draws upon that treasure-trove in fair measure, as Pamuk has himself acknowledged. His elixir of memory, fantasy and introspection is potent and soon the melancholic ambience engulfs the reader completely. The sunnier moments of Nilgun on the beach or Metin in the young crowd desperate with his longing for the local belles all seamlessly fit into the whole of this jigsaw mindscape. The shifting of narrators’ tones adds to our desire to keep on reading. The stream-of-consciousness account of Metin’s fascination with Ceylan, the object of his desire, is spellbinding.
The events and characters in this novel may belong to a particular region and time, but their angst is universal. Pamuk achieves this feat without once resorting to any preachy asides. That is a measure of the greatness of his craft, something one finds in Anton Chekov, and lately, J M Coetzee. Our enormous gratification of reading Pamuk is due in no small measure to the skills of Robert Finn, the diplomat-scholar who provided this luminous translation.
Fatma concludes for all humanity in the final lines:
“You can’t start out again in life, that’s a carriage ride you only take once, but with a book in your hand, no matter how confusing and perplexing it might be, once you’ve finished it, you can always go back to the beginning; if you like, you can read it through again, in order to figure out what you couldn’t understand before, in order understand life.”
That book for me would be Silent House, the most significant of the many I have read this year.
Author: Orhan Pamuk (Translated by Robert Finn)
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton/Penguin
Price: Rs 599