Love and violence on the edges of Istanbul

BEIRUT: In the seven years since he won the Nobel Prize for literature, Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk has made the news mostly for two books he published on either side of a museum opening in Istanbul.

For a writer renowned for bold public statements on behalf of the Armenians and Kurds killed in his country, these two fiction works and the institution they frame seem oddly apolitical, preoccupied as they are with reckless desire, romantic longing and other troubles of the heart.

They have also overshadowed the arrival in English, in late 2012, of “Silent House.” Written in 1983, Pamuk’s unassuming second novel is set against a backdrop of coups, collapsing regimes, military upheavals and miscellaneous political violence that divided Turkey between communists and fascists, rending the country with conspiracies and fear.

The first of the two more widely acclaimed books, “The Museum of Innocence,” delves into the story of an epic, delusional and obsessive love. Kemal, the son of a privileged family, falls for Fusun, a pretty shop girl who turns out to be a poor, distant cousin.

Kemal’s affair with Fusun destroys his engagement to Sibel, a regal beauty appropriate to his class, and derails the prosperous future promised to him by his father’s export business.

As soon as he is free to love her, however, Kemal loses Fusun and spends a decade trying to win her back. When he finally does so, their time together turns out to be tragically brief, and he spends the rest of his days in mourning.

Strangely grief-stricken, he builds a museum of objects – thousands of spent cigarettes, hundreds of saltshakers, a tricycle, an earring – that somehow honors not the memory of Fusun as a complex and mercurial woman, but rather the depth and breadth of Kemal’s craziness for her, or at least for the idea of her that these things represent.

“The Museum of Innocence” was published in Turkish in 2008 and translated into English by Maureen Freely in 2009, a brief lag compared to the 29 years “Silent House” had to wait.

For years, rumors percolated that Pamuk planned to actually construct the museum that Kemal creates in the book. It was said that Pamuk had scoured international museums for evocative institutions, educated himself on the ups and downs of museological display, and even lined up a slew of established curators and emerging artists as advisors.

Then, last spring, a museum opened in a blood-red building in the Beyoglu neighborhood of Cukurcuma, where Fusun and her fictional family were from. Exquisite and oppressively egocentric, the Museum of Innocence is a monument to a writer’s mind, and an intriguing experiment in making the writing process something to be seen and experienced in a warren of finely restored, gorgeously appointed rooms.

Late last year, Pamuk published “The Innocence of Objects,” both a follow up to “The Museum of Innocence” and an inventive catalogue detailing the entire inventory of exhibits that are currently on view – and seem slated to remain so on a permanent basis – in Cukurcuma.

All of this made the publication late last year of “Silent House” a surprisingly subtle event. Translated by Robert Finn, Pamuk’s novel pays tribute to the author’s interest in architecture – a subject he studied to appease his parents.

The book has no clear protagonist other than a family’s crumbling, slightly creepy mansion located in Cennethisar, a fishing village outside of Istanbul. All of the novel’s action takes place in and around that house.

It is summer, sometime in 1970s, and three siblings – Faruk, Metin and their sister Nilgun – have returned to their ancestral manse to visit their aging grandmother, Fatma. A brittle, Dickensian matriarch, Fatma lives alone with her servant, Recep, a dwarf who is also the illegitimate son of her late husband, Selahattin.

Secrets tumble out of every closet, echoing through every hallway. The most painful and consequential of which may be the fact that, after Selahattin’s death, Fatma burns all of his writings, though his grandchildren search for them still.

Fatma clearly considers it a cruel twist of fate that she has ended up in Cennethisar. In the last years of the Ottoman Empire, Selahattin is banished from Istanbul for a combination of reasons, including politics, pride (he suggests Fatma get used to being “a freedom fighter’s wife”) and a desire to avoid imprisonment for belonging to a party that is holding onto power by a thread. Selahattin, it seems, offended friend, colleague and party leader, Talaat Pasha.

In exile, Selahattin sets himself the monumental task of composing an encyclopedia of everything and disproving the existence of God. The newspapers arrive in Cennethisar three days late. He hardly reads them, ignoring the rumblings of war in Palestine, Galicia and Gallipoli.

His old party falls. Another war breaks out. Another party rises to power. The outside world slowly drifts by until, one day, Ottoman Turkish is abruptly abolished and replaced by modern Turkish. Pamuk conveys this rupture with great, gasping drama. Selahattin suddenly has a new language to master, and a life’s work to rewrite.

“Silent House” unfolds entirely within the headspace of its characters. The novel is a patchwork of internal monologues, so that readers leap from Fatma’s mind to Recep’s and so on.

We learn of two doomed romances: Metin’s love for Ceylan, who humors him for too long and rejects him only when he goes way too far; and Hasan’s love for Nilgun, which seeps through the book like a malevolent stain.

Another character, Recep’s nephew Hasan, grew up with the siblings but comes from a different social background. His father a crippled lottery ticket vendor, he has a huge chip on his shoulder and falls in with a group of block-headed ultra-nationalists who litter the seaside town with crude graffiti while dabbling in small-time extortion. When Hasan clocks Nilgun buying a communist newspaper, his resentment of her, and her polite indifference to him, explodes.

Pamuk merely sketches the outlines of these two bruising tales of unrequited love, but his novel reads with the force and fullness of a much more tortured history. “Silent House” is rife with doubled characters, mirrored plots and fearful symmetries – including the great violence that Fatma rains down on Recep and his family which returns as Hasan’s public beating of Nilgun.

In the months since it was released, critics have not universally embraced “Silent House.” Some have read it as early and unformed, others as willful and trying too hard. But the architecture of the house does something structural to the book that seems unique to Pamuk’s oeuvre, allowing readers to eavesdrop on the thoughts of characters, both alluring and repulsive.

It’s not hard to read the novel’s mental and physical landscapes as allegories, and to find much relevance in its palpable depictions of a house, a town, a family, a culture or a country torn apart by politics.

Orhan Pamuk’s “Silent House,” translated by Robert Finn, is widely available in Beirut bookstores. It is published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and by Faber & Faber in the U.K.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 18, 2013, on page 16.




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