If God writes straight with crooked lines, then when you come across a straight line you figure God wasn’t involved. With Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist and Nobel laureate, it is rather the same. His later masterpieces — “My Name Is Red’’ and “Snow’’ — are shivery roundabouts, marvelous misdirections, and entrancing side trips, all leading to searching questions about his country’s awkward straddle between East and West. It took a while for Pamuk to become himself, though.
Earlier he wrote plainer and more directly, though well. And now Knopf has published “Silent House,” written nearly 30 years ago. Plain indeed, and direct well past the point of awkwardness. It has a few of Pamuk’s strengths, but if it has any real interest it is to illustrate how a beginning novelist may, stumbling, grow from his stumbles.
“Silent House,” narrated by each of the characters in turn, is devised as an indictment of Turkish society, with an aimless and oppressive upper class, and the underclass it sits atop. On one side is the Darvinoglu family, decayed in fortunes but keeping an anxious handhold on its privileges; on the other, Hasan, an illegitimate relative; penniless, bitter and one of a gang of fascist thugs.
The novel is set in a weeklong visit to Fatma, the bedridden, 90-year-old Darvinoglu grandmother, by her three grown grandchildren: Faruk, fat and alcoholic, a dabbler in the study of history; Metin, a poorly paid tutor who dreams of making a fortune in America; and their sister Nilgün, a dilettantish left-winger. Fatma is waited on by Recep, the bastard son of her dead husband. He serves her devotedly despite her continual abuse; he is a dwarf — no doubt intended by Pamuk to personify the traditional feudal subservience of Turkey’s oppressed.
The grandchildren waste their week in futile pursuits. Faruk collects evidence of life in the 17th century from the town archives but can’t weave them into a coherent theme. Nilgün spends mornings sunbathing at the beach. Metin hangs out with rich friends whose main concern is warding off boredom. He is not wealthy enough to belong, except on sufferance; he pursues Ceylan, a girl in the group, confident she will respond. As for Hasan, he tags along with fascist pals — also on sufferance — as they shake down shopkeepers and paint hate graffiti.
Pamuk makes his young people, if not memorable, reasonably convincing. What is not convincing are the wildly melodramatic actions he forces on two. Metin, certain that Ceylan must love him, assaults her sexually; rebuffed, he begs her to marry him and go to the United States with him. Hasan, equally but more dangerously deluded, imagines himself as the deadly head of Turkey’s fascists and Nilgün’s lover. He stalks her with tragically violent results.
The central character, whose brooding monologues occupy most of the book, is Fatma. As a young woman she married Selahattin, an intellectual whose liberalism gets them exiled to the resort town where she still lives. They are happy until Selahattin becomes futilely obsessed with writing an encyclopedia, and before dying, he sells all of Fatma’s jewelry to buy equipment for scientific experiments he insists he needs to conduct.
She goes on to think of their son. Also dead, he was an official who quit his job to protest the government’s treatment of the poor. He and Recep are the only sympathetic characters in the book, and both are victims of the injustices of Turkey’s social and political class system. As for Fatma, she is a black widow weaving the webs of her grievance and malice. Among other things she tells of discovering her husband’s affair with their cook and going to the shack where the cook and her sons lived — Recep and Isaias, father of Hasan — and giving them crippling beatings. At the end her bitter monologue dissolves into a sentimental nostalgia for her privileged childhood.
The result is an often crude and unmodulated effort to tackle some of the social themes that Pamuk would later treat with such art, and on a far bigger canvas; and to draw characters that would later appear with destinies of such complexity and refinement.