Friday, April 26, 2013

All Quiet on the Eastern Front



Silent House 
by Orhan Pamuk 

Penguin Books Australia

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 generalisations 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."

- Mark Mordue

* First published in The Weekend Australian Review, October 20th 2012  under the title 'Genius in a turbulent dance to the music of Eastern time'.

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