Monday, 19 November 2012

Book Review: Orhan Pamuk's Silent House

Could you walk by this book? 

It's impossible to wander into London's oldest bookstore and leave without purchasing at least one good book. On a rather chilly autumnal afternoon, post-brunch with friends, I wandered into Hatchards. The store is a treat in itself, doubly so during the cold dark seasons where you can take refuge in the deepest corners and hide away from the world, if only for a while.

In one particular corner, a certain dust-jacket caught my eye, - Silent House it said and so silently, I picked it up, flipped it over, flipped it back, traced the stunning image with my fingers and sighed.  Yes, you're beautiful, I thought.  Please let you be beautiful on the inside too, I whispered.  I held my breath and read the first few pages.... yes, yes... you were very good but then I checked the inside cover and thought, are you really worth £18.99?  At this point, my friends appeared out of the darkness, promptly pointed towards the basement,  'paperbacks are that way', they cited.  And for a brief moment, all the tweeting about e-books pricing and paperbacks, flashed before my eyes 'matrix-style'.  For the first time, I felt uneasy about paying so much for a hardback.  Could I wait a few months for the paperback?  In short, the answer was, NO.  You were too beautiful and you were coming home with me that day. 

So, back to the book review.  The story is set during the summer of 1979, in a small Turkish beachside town before the military coup in 1980, and it's told from several of the characters point of view.  Fatma, the main protagonist, is a cantankerous grand-matriarch, a wilful, naive old lady, and surprisingly or not, as the story unfolds, we soon discover that she can also be quite vile.  She is mostly bedridden in her rambling old 'Silent House' near the beach.  Her daily chores and bidding are taken care of by one very intriguing dwarf named Recep, who by the way, is her late husband's illegitimate son.  Each year, her three bothersome grandchildren visit her from Istanbul.  There is Faruk - a failed historian, his younger siblings, his sister Nilgun who loves to read and brother Metin, who yearns for a life in America.  In the small village, we meet Ismail, Recep's brother, who sells lottery tickets, and Hasan, Ismail's young son who is caught up with a local gang of nationalists.  As fate would have it, Ismail becomes infatuated with Nilgun whose ideals are more Left than Right.

For me, this is a story about social classes, the yearning to belong, to obtain status, and to fail.  It's about family, relationships, love, betrayal and of course tragedies. The skeletons are practically busting out of Fatma's beloved closet.  If you recall that song 'I'm glad I'm not a Kennedy', you could apply to this tale and rename it to, ' I'm glad I'm not a Darvinoglu.'  With the narrative interchanging between five characters, after the first few chapters, I found my favourites, and my interest only waned with a couple of the characters, that being Faruk and Fatma.  I felt the need to re-read several mutterings and remind myself at times that this book was translated from Turkish to English.  Also, that it was written 30 years ago.  I'll be honest, at times, after re-reading Fatma's ramblings, I wanted to strangle the old lady.  Not that she reminded me of my own mother, mind. 

I particularly enjoyed the inner monologues of Hasan and Metin, both were the most compelling for me, but as I turned the last page, I felt a little cheated, at least for Recep and his brother Ismail.  I wanted to know more about them, the possibilities of what happened.  With this story, we see what Orhan Pamuk wants to reveal to us, and I think that's the point. There are many layers to each of these characters and with each chapter, it's just beneath the surface that Pamuk allows us a glimpse of what each one is thinking, and then the veil swiftly drops again.  Like a circus act, like a clever magician, like a wily old spider who weaves her web, quietly says 'there you are', and then sits back.  You consider how life went on for each of these characters after closing this book.  The possibilities are endless with this story and sometimes, you just have to dream them up yourself.  I certainly did.