Good writing, according to the forecast of many a critic these days, is headed the way of the dinosaurs. Literary types love an ominous portent, and tend to assume that if books are to be buried, they’ll be buried right alongside them. Critical fingers are pointed at the best-seller lists, which have long been dominated by 50 shades of fluff, as a sign that good taste is, indeed, a thing of the past.
Still, it’s difficult to ignore the growing catalog of international works translated into English—currently the closest approximation American readers have to a popular avant-garde. You can’t sneeze without another “lost” work by the late Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño coming out, Lydia Davis seems hell-bent on translating as many French classics as possible, and for every book by James Patterson or Nora Roberts, there’s a Satantango or Day of the Oprichnik. They may not sell like E.L. James, but they certainly seem to provide a necessary balance between high and low.
Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk is the most celebrated and successful living writer in the canon of contemporary literature-in-translation. His 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded about a year after he became a Rushdie-esque figure in the support of freedom of speech, when criminal charges were brought against him for discussing Turkey’s massacre of Armenians during World War I. But even before the medal was placed around his neck in Oslo, Mr. Pamuk received praise from nearly every corner of the literary world. The Village Voice called one of his books, “Shakespearean in its grandeur”; John Updike, reviewing his novel My Name is Red, translated into English in 2001, made allusions to Mann, Borges and Proust.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given the Nobel, Mr. Pamuk has seen his work translated into English more frequently in the last decade or so. My Name is Red and Snow each took around two years to be translated and released in the United States, but 2009’s The Museum of Innocence was published almost simultaneously in Turkey and America, a testament to his enduring appreciation in the West. Originally published in 1983, Silent House (Knopf, 352 pp., $26.95), titled Sessiz Ev in his native language, was the then 30-something-year-old writer’s second novel, and it stands as the earliest of Mr. Pamuk’s works to be translated into English so far (his 1982 debut Cevdet Bey and His Sons remains unreleased stateside). It is not his masterpiece, but it provides a crucial glimpse into his evolution as a writer.
Translated by Robert Finn, the former American ambassador to Afghanistan, Silent House’s introduction to American bookshelves serves to showcase Mr. Pamuk as an emerging writer in his younger days, and demonstrates how adept he was even back then at churning out impressive work. It proves once and for all that he is truly one of the world’s most versatile fiction writers, no matter the language in which he is read.
Silent House tells the story of three siblings going to visit their grandmother in her crumbling mansion just outside of Istanbul. Where Mr. Pamuk’s later books flirt with postmodernism and in some cases magical realism, Silent House is an exercise in naturalism that paints a picture of both a nation that is coming apart and a family whose members are drifting away from each other. The youngest sibling, Metin, when questioned by an old friend, calls his sister a “typical leftie,” and says of his brother, “All he does is drink and get fat. He’s a hopeless slob!”
The book unfolds over the course of a few days in the summer of 1980, mere weeks before the real-life coup d’état that put Turkey’s military in place as the leaders of the country. Worry over what is to come hangs like a dark cloud over of the action in Silent House, but it is cleverly balanced with the story of squabbling siblings. The mandatory annual summer holiday they spend with their elderly grandmother is played out against the scenery of her decrepit estate, its disrepair emblematic of the country’s turmoil. Upon arriving at the house, Faruk notes the deteriorating woodwork, the chipping paint, the wild outgrowth of vines, and thinks to himself, “I had a strange feeling: it was as if there were terrible things in this house that I had never apprehended before owing to familiarity, but that I was now recognizing with surprise and anxiety.” The decay and death alluded to throughout the book makes it feel as though Turkey’s unstable government is as much a character as any of the people.
The grandchildren represent the range of possible political beliefs when revolution looms. Faruk, the oldest, is a rakish academic who takes little pleasure in being a historian. He justifies spending so much of the book hanging around the village archive by asking his sister Nilgün, “What else am I supposed to do, just hang around here?” Nilgün, the young, sympathetic leftist whose idealism keeps her naïve, is the only character who doesn’t narrate. But despite her lack of a voice, her presence, through her radicalism, weighs heavily. In writing Nilgün, the young Mr. Pamuk uses the kind of restraint and subtlety that he would further cultivate and redeploy in his later years. She is high-minded and youthfully ignorant, but he doesn’t obsess over her obliviousness; instead, Nilgün and her political leanings are used as a deceptive chess piece; at first you think she’s a pawn, but as she marches through the story, her importance is revealed by degrees.
Metin is the youngest grandchild and in some ways the most interesting. He is taken by the allure of the West and the promise of a better life there. His motivation behind visiting his grandmother is to convince her to sell her crumbling mansion and give the money to the grandchildren, so that he can move to America and, he hopes, strike it rich. Like many potential immigrants, he dreams of an America that he has only heard about, one where he imagines “the freedom along the city’s avenues, the blacks who would play jazz for me on the street corners, those subway stations where no one pays attention to anyone else.” He sees his brother and sister as the only thing standing in the way of his dream. Faruk, the scholar, can’t motivate himself enough to churn out a decent book; Nilgün is progressive-minded only about her homeland; Metin wants to escape. Meanwhile Buyukhanim, their sickly grandmother, is in purgatory, slumped in her decaying mansion, pondering her life and those of her acquaintances who have died as the world falls apart around them; she despises her dwarf servant Recep, who happens to be the illegitimate son of her late husband. Despite the specificity of the novel’s setting, these archetypal mind-sets make the characters’ respective struggles universal; they could be any family, anywhere, at any time.
Parts of Silent House are sluggishly paced, and the multiple perspectives make portions of the novel incoherent. Mr. Pamuk goes off on stream-of-consciousness sprees that throw off his rhythm. But overall, the book, in its subtle portrayal of the slow-burning fire of Turkey’s revolution, excels in its portrayal of large-scale change by foreshadowing the chaos that follows. It also serves as a reminder that, even in times of turmoil, life goes on. Revolution, according to Mr. Pamuk, does not quell a family’s issues; it only magnifies them.