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Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012

Cry for Tolerance

Nobel-winner Orhan Pamuk’s Silent House released in English

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Originally published in Turkey in 1983 and now translated into English for the first time, Silent House (Knopf) is Orhan Pamuk's second novel. Although the Nobel Prize-winner makes no direct mention of the book’s historical relevance in the text itself, his story takes place roughly one month before the Sept. 12, 1980 Turkish coup d'état, in which General Kenan Evren and the Turkish Armed Forces restored order after violence had broken out between right-leaning nationalists and communists. An army-controlled National Security Council then ruled Turkey until 1983, when democracy was restored.

So why is Silent House relevant to English-language readers in 2012, almost 30 years after the book's publication? The answer lies in a statement made by one of Pamuk's minor characters—a pharmacist named Kemal Bey: "[Politics is] everywhere. . . . No matter where you go, it grabs you by the collar."

Kemal refers to the beating of Nilgün, a young woman who runs afoul of Hasan (an extreme and equally young Turkish nationalist) for buying a communist newspaper. Sexually attracted to Nilgün, Hasan kicks and punches her for her "crime," with just as much of a sense of adolescent machismo and tough-guy posturing. The point is that Hasan is too immature to come to terms with his physical urges and his body becomes the site of a dilemma. Should Hasan follow the stereotypical view of Western culture and try to have sex with a woman to whom he's attracted? Or should he follow the stereotypical view of Eastern culture and attack a woman with left-wing values?

For Pamuk, Turkey—and, in particular, Istanbul—is a liminal space where history has entangled Western and Eastern values to such an extent that it's the most valuable setting for the novelist to explore some of the key political issues of our time. It's a place where political factions live and breathe side-by-side, as they constantly brush up against each other in public street corners, coffeehouses, and alleyways, and also in the privacy of family homes.

And these family homes are the most dangerous places for Pamuk because they harbor silence and implicit consent to violence. They are where violence begins. Indeed, the silent house of the novel's title truly serves as Pamuk's description and condemnation of the silence that beats at the heart of Turkey. The house, located just outside Istanbul in Cennethisar, brings together three generations of Turks when three young people, including Nilgün, visit grandmother Fatma and her dwarf son Recep. But the generations are sadly cut off from each other and they squabble about petty matters. However, they don't discuss their inner thoughts—the political implications Pamuk perceives to be crucial differences in values between the West and the East. For example, Fatma mostly lingers alone in her bedroom and broods on the Western values of her deceased husband and his unfinished encyclopedia in which he considers death and nothingness. Her grandson, Faruk, thinks long and deeply about whether history is a story or reality, and a second grandson, Metin, ponders the virtues of Western materialism. Pamuk's Silent House is really Turkey itself.

This is a shame because silence can only hold for so long before violence erupts. Profoundly anti-violence, Silent House is Pamuk's early cry for tolerance, reason, and communication during a time when democracy was on the line and, indeed, temporarily lost in Turkey. It's necessary reading, especially for those of us in the U.S. who recognize similarly sharp political divisions.