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Broken Homeland 21 octobre 2012

Posted by Acturca in Art-Culture, Books / Livres, Turkey / Turquie.
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The New York Times (USA) Sunday, October 21, 2012, p. BR 11
Book Review

By Francine Prose *

Three siblings are paying their annual summer visit to their 90-year-old grandmother in the family home by the sea. Reduced to these bare bones of plot, Orhan Pamuk’s « Silent House » almost sounds like one of those plays about dynastic reunions that help keep the lights of Broadway bright, letting their audiences enjoy the spectacle of tensions burbling beneath the cocktail-hour banter, then erupting in a frenzy of recrimination and resentment as buried secrets are exhumed, accusations leveled and amends made just in time for the final curtain.

Silent House
By Orhan Pamuk
Translated by Robert Finn
334 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.95.

Yet Pamuk’s novel bears little resemblance to the summary above. For one thing, the grandmother, Fatma, is less like a salty Broadway matriarch than a Turkish Miss Havisham, embittered and trapped in the past, haunting the decaying mansion outside Istanbul where she lives alone with her servant, a dwarf who also happens to be her late husband’s illegitimate son. For another, the novel, first published in Turkey in 1983 and only now appearing here, is — despite flashes of levity and wit — almost unremittingly intense, gothic and peculiar. As the narrative progresses, you may feel as if the atmosphere around you were growing close, drained of oxygen, as if the air were full of whispers, as if some unpleasant event were just about to occur — all of which makes it tricky to explain why the reading experience is so very pleasurable.

Pamuk, who was awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, has divided his novel into titled chapters, each of which allows us to eavesdrop on the interior monologue of one of its characters, ruminating on the past and reflecting on the present action. The smooth and graceful translation, by Robert Finn, has met the challenge of finding subtle variations in syntax, vocabulary and cadence that will distinguish the different voices without making us distractingly aware of these linguistic distinctions.

We hear first from Recep, the 55-year-old dwarf who waits on his father’s widow and patiently tries to protect his fragile dignity from the demands of his dictatorial employer and the casual cruelty of his neighbors. When Recep leaves the house for a lonely visit to the cinema, we are transported to Fatma’s bedroom, where the old woman is already mulling over the subjects that will obsess her throughout the novel — most notably, her disastrous marriage to an idealistic doctor whose modern religious and political views still enrage her, decades after his death.

At this point, the novel is so thoroughly permeated by a dusty melancholy and a suppressed, geriatric hysteria that it comes as something of a shock when the younger characters show up and blow apart the uneasy truces in the silent house and the quiet town. We spend a troubling chapter inside the mind of Hasan, Recep’s nephew, a restless high-school dropout who has begun to realize that no amount of math homework will enable him to escape his society’s rigid class hierarchy. Boredom and discontent make Hasan, whose disabled father barely supports the family by selling lottery tickets, an easy recruit for a gang of right-wing nationalists who paint slogans on walls and talk about how much they would like to beat up communists.

To this mix are added three characters newly arrived from Istanbul in an old, ­broken-down Turkish-made car. The driver is Fatma’s grandson Faruk, an unhappy historian — divorced, alcoholic, gaining weight. With him is his pretty and good-humored sister, Nilgun, who reads a left-wing newspaper and soon becomes the object of Hasan’s romantic fixations, and their younger brother, Metin, who wants to go to America and dreams of being able to afford the luxuries his rich friends take for granted.

During their seaside visit, Faruk haunts the local archives and reads true stories from the past that excite his imagination and remind him why he became a historian. Nilgun spends her mornings at the beach, her spare time with her brothers and accompanies her grandmother to the cemetery to pray for the dead. Metin reconnects with friends who drink and smoke, drive fancy foreign cars and ride around in speedboats. He falls in love with a girl so cool she owns a copy of an Elvis Presley record.

To paraphrase Chekhov’s statement about the gun on the stage having to go off before the final act: if a writer gives a poor right-wing boy an unrequited, soured passion for a middle-class, left-wing girl, something awful is going to happen before the final chapter. Something does happen in Pamuk’s novel, and we read partly to find out what it will be. But that may not be the principal reason we keep turning the pages. I was interested in Pamuk’s way of rendering consciousness not as a series of thoughts broadcast out into the ozone, like Mrs. Dalloway’s, but as an imaginary conversation with a specific person who never answers: someone who is unavailable, uninterested or, in some cases, dead. Fatma has never ceased arguing with her husband, a fight that gives the novel many of its most inspired and impassioned moments. Metin and Hasan are each talking, silently and nonstop, to the girls they love, young women who are unattainable for reasons having much to do with privilege and money.

Pamuk has a flattering faith in his readers’ intelligence, relying on us to figure out what qualities and quirks have been passed down through the generations of men in the family, not just the obvious (alcoholism) but the less common impulse to amass, record and find answers in encyclopedic compilations of knowledge. So if Fatma reminds us of Miss Havisham, her husband bears a resemblance to Edward Casaubon of « Middlemarch, » retreating into the chilly safety of a vast, never-to-be-completed volume that will explain the whole world. Pamuk also trusts us to know that his novel takes place not long before the military takeover of the Turkish government, a fact that adds several layers of nuance to what occurs in the sleepy town of Cennethisar.

Pamuk covers a lot of territory without ever leaving the area. There are fantasies, memories, philosophy and some terrific set pieces, most notably the wealthy teenagers’ parties that Metin observes and tries to join, an effort that unleashes a desperate and reckless side of his nature. The book is dense, threaded through with ideas about history, religion, memory, class and politics. But it never seems didactic because the reader comes to realize that these reflections are aspects of the inner life: plausible components of the characters’ psyches. I was glad to be transported to a seaside town in Turkey, to meet this odd family and their neighbors, all of whom seem to be living in several places at once: in the present and the past, in history, in everyday reality and in the simultaneously limitless and constricted worlds of their own minds.

* Francine Prose’s most recent book is a novel, « My New American Life. »


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