Life is a spin you take only once — a strange, incomprehensible ride in a runaway carriage. “On it goes, from place to place,” writes Orhan Pamuk in “Silent House,” “no one knows why.” From time to time, you can’t help but look back at the rickety vehicle and wonder: “Was this the thing that brought us here, swaying all the way?” But for all of life’s mysteries, for all its head-scratching confusion, you cannot go back and pick your way through again. Not in the way you can a book.
“Silent House” is the sort of novel that makes you retrace every step. A mosaic of 32 chapters told by five alternating narrators, it will have you flipping back and forth constantly, wondering how the puzzle fits, eager to get the story straight. Set in the violent summer of 1980, before the coup that transformed Turkey from economic basket case to fierce military state, it is a remarkable mirror on the din and dissonance of the day.
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.
“I peered into Grandmother and Recep’s damp, deadly interior darkness, which was visible between the decrepit wings of the big front door they’d left open for us,” one of the grandchildren, a delusional historian, tells us. And so, in this quiet unassuming way does a wrenching story unfold, each character adding his say, until a grandson of the bastard line — as twisted a soul as any — takes the story on an unexpected and hair-raising turn.
Oh, that we could read this in Pamuk’s original, in prose that won him initial acclaim and a number of literary prizes. Instead, we are offered a halting and clumsy translation, replete with howlers. “There’s somebody I know that I’m waiting for,” one character manages, when “I’m waiting for somebody I know” is surely what he said. “She was bent over, like a sleeper in bed,” we read, and then we work hard to summon an image we can picture: a woman in fetal position, curled like a shrimp. “That structure I was imagining had been a caravanserai must be farther down,” another remembers, leaving us to conclude that the translator, editor and the publisher itself have forgotten how to write a simple, declarative sentence.
Alas, what’s missing in this book is all too clear. Her name is Maureen Freely. It was Freely, after all, who brought Pamuk to prominence in the English-speaking world with her vibrant and nimble translations of “Snow,” “Istanbul,” and “Museum of Innocence.” Missing, too, is Erdag Goknar, whose translation of “My Name Is Red” won the IMPAC Dublin Award for its “intense beauty” as well as its intelligence, wit and style. None of those attributes is in evidence in the translation of “Silent House,” brought to us by Robert Finn, an ex-ambassador to Afghanistan, a linguist whose credentials are impressive, but more geared to interoffice memoranda than to the literary arts. One wonders why he was chosen for so delicate a task in the first place.
I can’t help but think that a very good book — perhaps the author’s most accessible novel to date — resides in the miasma of this translation. What a pity that ordinary readers will simply throw up their hands in frustration.
If you haven’t read Pamuk before, don’t start here. But if you have read him, if you have lived in his universe of unforgettable characters, if you are interested in the full arc of his remarkable creation, look past the ramshackle paraphernalia to the work of a great engineer.
Arana is a former editor in chief of Book World and the author of numerous works, among them “Cellophane” and “Lima Nights.”
By Orhan Pamuk
Translated from the Turkish by Robert Finn
Knopf. 334 pp. $26.95