Ge­nius in tur­bu­lent dance to the mu­sic of Eastern time

Silent House

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Mark Mor­due Mark Mor­due

By Orhan Pa­muk Hamish Hamil­ton, 342pp, $29.99

THERE were things I had for­got­ten about Orhan Pa­muk. I sus­pect this for­get­ting arises from the fact the Turk­ish nov­el­ist is such an el­e­gant writer and hero­ically book­ish fig­ure. Yet close to the sur­face of Pa­muk’s work lie much darker forces such as anger and vi­o­lence and mis­ery, a deep, shock­ing, spir­i­tual mis­ery that shakes through ev­ery­thing and in­evitably shakes you.

In this mis­ery Pa­muk com­bines the influence of lit­er­ary fore­fa­thers such as Fy­o­dor Dos­to­evsky (or­ches­tral, even manic depth), Al­bert Ca­mus (pres­ence with de­tach­ment), Vladimir Nabokov (an eerie eye for de­tail) and Thomas Bern­hard (ec­static di­a­tribes) with the more en­raged and for­saken em­pa­thy he feels for the dis­pos­sessed of the Mid­dle Eastern world and the cul­ture it has spawned, be it Is­lamic or na­tion­al­ist in flavour.

Not for noth­ing does he re­sort to the phrase ‘‘ a dou­ble soul’’ when talk­ing of him­self, his coun­try, the char­ac­ters he writes of and even the na­ture of his nov­els. A poet of damna­tion as much as hope, Pa­muk is truly a beast in be­jew­elled skin.

Now 60, the 2006 No­bel lau­re­ate re­tains a boy­ish look and aca­demic de­meanour that ap­pears re­as­sur­ing in pho­tos. In­vari­ably shown in his mag­nif­i­cent per­sonal li­brary wear­ing a dark suit and read­ing glasses, Pa­muk emerges as the pic­ture of En­light­en­ment rea­son. Some­times these sig­na­ture por­traits re­veal his win­dow view of the Bospho­rus and the bridge that unites Asia with Europe. There he sits in Is­tan­bul on the brink of it all.

Pa­muk has been more ap­pre­ci­ated in the West for his noble ges­tures as a pub­lic in­tel­lec­tual and his melan­choly writ­ing style rather than his seething ex­is­ten­tial­ism and am­biva­lent po­lit­i­cal rage. The in­ter­na­tional suc­cess of an Ot­toman-era fa­ble such as My Name is Red (2001) and a post­mod­ern love story such as The Mu­seum of In­no­cence (2009) have added to his jew­ellery-box lus­tre, as has his grand au­to­bi­og­ra­phy of self and place, Is­tan­bul: Mem­o­ries and the City (2005).

The last has be­come a go-to text for many who con­sider vis­it­ing that city, though it is in fact the type of travel book that should be read af­ter go­ing there. Mov­ing in ei­ther di­rec­tion it’s likely to ex­haust read­ers with its ti­tanic ebb-and-flow of per­sonal mem­o­ries and his­tor­i­cal observations. Yes, it is a won­der­ful book, but it is no place to start with Pa­muk, even if it has strangely con­firmed his cul­ti­vated im­age.

If his most beloved works tend to­wards glit­ter, gloom and charm, con­jur­ing up the au­tho­rial im­age of an in­tel­lec­tual Gatsby sadly beck­on­ing to us from the Bospho­rus, then a novel such as Silent House — now trans­lated into English for the first time — un­leashes Pa­muk’s far more tur­bu­lent side. No doubt a part of this lies in the fact he wrote it as a young man.

First pub­lished in Tur­key in 1983, Silent House is the sec­ond novel Pa­muk wrote. It is dev­as­tat­ing to re­alise he was only 31 at the time it ap­peared, and that all the el­e­ments of his writ­ing style and vi­sion were al­ready pow­er­fully in place. Any wrong-headed gener- al­i­sa­tions about his early, un­trans­lated work be­ing lit­tle more than a stu­dious mimicry of nat­u­ral­is­tic 19th-cen­tury nov­el­is­tic con­ven­tions must now be well and truly thrown into the flames.

In struc­ture alone Pa­muk makes daz­zling use of first per­son nar­ra­tive, shift­ing the per­spec­tive be­tween five pri­mary char­ac­ters who are kalei­do­scop­i­cally en­gaged with their past, their dreams and the peo­ple around them.

Fatma is a grand­mother con­sumed to the point of de­men­tia by her mem­o­ries and her vi­cious dis­gust for mod­ern life. Re­cep, her dwarf house-ser­vant, is clear-eyed and pas­sive, pro­foundly alone. Faruk, Fatma’s raki-swill­ing grand­son, is a his­to­rian sur­ren­der­ing him­self to fil­i­ci­dal dis­so­lu­tion and his fail­ure to tell mean­ing­ful sto­ries. Faruk’s younger brother Metin is a hard-par­ty­ing high school stu­dent ashamed of his mid­dle-class fam­ily’s slide into poverty, a fan­ta­sist ut­terly un­able to dis­tin­guish be­tween the furies of lust and love. Hasan is a for­mer child­hood friend of Metin and his sis­ter Nil­gun (not given a voice, but the fo­cus of much male pro­jec­tion), a lower-class kid now caught up with right-wing thugs and his own swirling loops of ide­al­ism and ha­tred.

One could com­pare Silent House with a ma­jor con­tem­po­rary novel such as Jonathan Franzen’s Free­dom and the Amer­i­can au­thor’s at­tempts to cre­ate a so­cially and po­lit­i­cally en­gaged book of the mo­ment built on a se­ries of in­ter­twined lives and per­spec­tives. Pa­muk works with sim­i­lar in­ten­tions, writ­ing and set­ting his novel dur­ing the sav­age lead-up to a mil­i­tary coup in Tur­key in 1980. He does this by os­cil­lat­ing be­tween per­sua­sive nat­u­ral­ism, fits of melo­drama and far more ex­per­i­men­tal writ­ing styles than Franzen ever at­tempted. The word ‘‘ ge­nius’’ es­capes the lips, if only in recog­ni­tion of Pa­muk’s age when it was pub­lished. His sec­ond novel!

The sub­ject mat­ter clearly springs from au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ences: Pa­muk’s circle of young friends and the in­do­lent sum­mer beach hol­i­days he went on with his fam­ily. It gives the writ­ing a dream­ily re­called ve­rac­ity that can turn con­fronting. That Pa­muk chose to zero in on such in­ti­mate en­ergy with a po­lit­i­cal vi­sion in mind and write about it as Tur­key was ca­reer­ing to­wards an­ar­chy, then chose to pub­lish this work dur­ing the frag­ile demo­cratic tran­si­tion out of mil­i­tary rule in 1983, shows just how bold he was.

With one foot in the West and an­other in the East, it is no won­der Dos­to­evsky is fre­quently cited by Pa­muk as one of his most favourite writ­ers. In his 2007 essay col­lec­tion Other Colours, Pa­muk ob­serves that, ‘‘ The orig­i­nal­ity of Notes from the Un­der­ground is­sues from the dark space be­tween Dos­to­evsky’s ra­tio­nal mind and his an­gry heart.’’ He also says that Notes from the Un­der­ground is the book where Dos­to­evsky ‘‘ finds his true voice’’, lead­ing him on to his great­est works, Crime and Pu­n­ish­ment, Devils and The Broth­ers Kara­ma­zov.

In Silent House it is sim­i­larly pos­si­ble to wit­ness the dark space be­tween Pa­muk’s ra­tio­nal mind and his an­gry heart that will even­tu­ally find its full, aching di­men­sion in what I be­lieve to be Pa­muk’s best and bleak­est novel, Snow (2004). For those who wish to turn back to Silent House, Pa­muk in­vokes a folk say­ing in its pages that could serve as a prophecy, as well as a warn­ing to fans of his more aes­thet­i­cally dec­o­ra­tive work: ‘‘ The tree is bent when it’s young.’’

Orhan Pa­muk with his daugh­ter Ruya at the 2006 No­bel Prize banquet

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