Written in 1983, Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk’s second novel has only now been translated into English from Turkish. Set in the coastal village of Cannethisar near Istanbul, shortly before the military coup of 1980, it tells its story in the manner of a David Hockney photo-collage; you keep wanting to flip back and forth through the book, to have a re-look at the lives of its characters — something which, in real life, is a one way rollicking ‘coach ride’. There’s no going back.
A splenetic 90-year old widow, Fatma Hanim (grandmother) lives in the rambling old ‘Silent House’, looked after by her manservant, the dwarf Recep, and is awaiting the arrival of her three grown grandchildren, Faruk, Nilgun and Metin for their annual week-long holiday. She is a crotchety old soul, unhappy with the ways of the young generation, and steeped in the bitterness of the life she had with her late husband, a doctor, whose political views sent him into exile to Cannethisar from Istanbul. An avowed atheist and convinced that the East would remain backward if it didn’t look westwards., he sells his wife’s jewellery to embark on his magnum opus – and dies of drinking.
The grandchildren arrive: Faruk an enthusiastic historian researching Ottoman history (but also heading for alcoholism), shares a chatty relationship with his pretty sister Nilgun, who has strong Communist leanings and spends her holiday sunbathing and reading. Metin the youngest wants to study in America and spends his time larking about with his nouveau-riche friends — falling in love with one of them (unsuccessfully). He is, much to his grandmother’s irritation, keen they sell the old house to finance his education abroad.
Recep, the dwarf- help fights his own demons — upset by the way he is made fun of because of his stature. But there’s more to it — he turns out to be the bastard son of the late doctor, something Fatma Hanim is not willing to forgive or forget easily. Each chapter is devoted to, and narrated by one of the five main characters: Grandmother, Recep, Hasan, Faruk and Metin (Nilgun, though quite as central is not included). It is difficult to put down this book mid-chapter. The ‘stream of consciousness’ runs strongly. You have no choice but to be carried along by its current — exactly as you don’t like to have your flow of thought to be interrupted. It’s succinctly written, though in places the translation, especially of the dialogue, of which there is plenty — seems stiff and stilted and too formal — like excessively starched clothes. The human relationships emerge beautifully.
There is the old woman’s acridity towards one and all — the incessant hammering of her cane on the floor as she demands attention — here is no doting grandmother; just a harsh, bitter old lady. There is affection and good humour between Faruk and Nilgun; Recep’s uncomplaining devotion to the old lady and the rest of the family, Metin’s directionless fooling around so typical of adolescence, Hasan’s desperation to prove to his compatriots that he believes in his cause even if it means beating up the girl he loves. But a sense of redemption is left for the end as the old lady reminiscences: ‘You can’t start again in life, that’s a carriage ride you take only once, but with a book in your hand, no matter how confusing and perplexing it may be, once you’ve finished it, you can always go back to the beginning, if you like, you can read it through again, in order to figure out what you couldn’t understand before, in order to understand life…’