The house in question sits in a seaside town outside Istanbul and belongs to 90-year-old Fatma, a widow who — on the face of things — lives a quiet enough existence within its dark, musty walls. Like Robinson Crusoe, her favorite fictional character, Fatma is virtually stranded with her own version of Man Friday, a deferential dwarf who is devoted to her every need. His name is Recep.
But layer upon layer of evidence, applied by each narrator, reveals a family that is as complicated and volatile as the country. As Fatma’s three grandchildren descend on the house for a week’s vacation on the beach, the old woman contemplates how much of the family story she should tell them. With time, that simple concern turns into full-blown anxiety: She suspects that the dwarf will blurt all there is to know.
The dwarf, as it turns out, is the bastard son of her dead husband. It is Recep who cooks, cleans, shops and helps Fatma in and out of bed, and it is he who knows all the secrets that have been handed down from father to son, damaging the generations, crimping body and soul.
If this sounds like a radical change from the Nobel laureate’s big-hearted, love-pumped “The Museum of Innocence,” it is because it is. “Silent House” was written 30 years ago when Pamuk was a very young man, working furiously in the fire of the political moment. It precedes the Pamuk oeuvre that most English-language readers know best: “My Name Is Red,” a murder story involving miniaturists during the Ottoman Empire; “Snow,” in which a Turkish poet returns home after a long exile; “Istanbul,” a memoir that combines personal and political history. Although “Silent House” is a fascinating story that deserves to be read on its own terms, it suffers, sadly, on two counts: its publication after the writer’s more mature works, and its ham-handed, amateurish translation.
The story itself is propulsive. The patriarch of the family, Selahattin, a doctor who has been run out of Istanbul for his politics, proceeds to self-destruct by proclaiming God dead and the East a benighted backwater. Maddened by isolation and drink, Selahattin dedicates himself to rewriting the world: He will produce a comprehensive encyclopedia, sell Fatma’s considerable stash of jewelry to fund it, and consort with their pretty maid all the while. The encyclopedia comes to naught, but the happy harmony with the maid flourishes. Eventually, Selahattin and his domestic helper produce two bastard sons on whom Fatma will wreak cruel revenge. But such mortal sins are just the beginning: Curses begin to befall the little family, just as curses befall an increasingly polarized country. Fatma and Selahattin’s child grows up to be an incurable alcoholic; the maid’s sons meet their own crippling fates; the fascists and communists go on killing one other. By the time Fatma’s grandchildren arrive at her door on that hot summer’s day, they are doomed in more ways than one.