In a crumbling mansion in a gentrified former fishing village on the Turkish coast, the widow Fatma awaits the annual visit of her grandchildren: Faruk, a dissipated historian; his sensitive leftist sister, Nilgün; and Metin, a high schooler drawn to the fast life of the nouveaux riche. Bedridden, Fatma is attended by her faithful servant Recep, a dwarf—and her late husband’s illegitimate son. Mistress and servant share memories, and grievances, from the past. But the arrival of Recep’s cousin, Hasan, a fervent right-wing nationalist, threatens to draw the family into the political cataclysm arising from Turkey’s tumultuous century-long struggle for modernity. Written in the 1980s but never before published in English, this spellbinding novel is a stunning addition to the works of Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk.
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Grandmother Waits in Bed
I listen to him going down the stairs one by one. What does he do in the streets until all hours? I wonder. Don’t think about it, Fatma, you’ll only get disgusted. But still, I wonder. Did he shut the doors tight, that sneaky dwarf? He couldn’t care less! He’ll get right into bed to prove he’s a born servant, snore all night long. Sleep that untroubled, carefree sleep of a servant, and leave me to the night. I think that sleep will come for me, too, and I’ll forget, but I wait all alone and I realize that I’m waiting in vain.
Selâhattin used to say that sleep is a chemical phenomenon, one day they’ll discover its formula just as they discovered that H2O is the formula for water. Oh, not our fools, of course, unfortunately it’ll be the Europeans again who find it, and then no one will have to put on funny pajamas and sleep between these useless sheets and under ridiculous flowered quilts and lie there until morning just because he’s tired. At that time, all we’ll have to do is put three drops from a bottle into a glass of water every evening and then drink it, and it will make us as fit and fresh as if we had just woken up in the morning from a deep sleep. Think of all the things we could do with those extra hours, Fatma, think of it!
I don’t have to think about it, Selâhattin, I know, I stare at the ceiling, I stare and stare and wait for some thought to carry me away, but it doesn’t happen. If I could drink wine or raký, maybe I could sleep like you, but I don’t want that kind of ugly sleep. You used to drink two bottles: I drink to clear my mind and relieve my exhaustion from working on the encyclopedia, Fatma, it’s not for pleasure. Then you would doze off, snoring with your mouth open until the smell of raký would drive me away in disgust. Cold woman, poor thing, you’re like ice, you have no spirit! If you had a glass now and again, you’d understand! Come on, have a drink, Fatma, I’m ordering you, don’t you believe you have to do what your husband tells you. Of course, you believe it, that’s what they taught you, well, then, I’m ordering you: Drink, let the sin be mine, come on, drink Fatma, set your mind free. It’s your husband who wants it, come on, oh God! She’s making me beg. I’m sick of this loneliness, please, Fatma, have one drink, or you’ll be disobeying your husband.
No, I won’t fall for a lie in the form of a serpent. I never drank, except once. I was overcome with curiosity. When nobody at all was around. A taste like salt, lemon, and poison on the tip of my tongue. At that moment I was terrified. I was sorry. I rinsed my mouth out right away, I emptied out the glass and rinsed it over and over and I began to feel I would be dizzy. I sat down so I wouldn’t fall on the floor, my God, I was afraid I would become an alcoholic like him, too, but nothing happened. Then I understood and relaxed. The devil couldn’t get near me.
I’m staring at the ceiling. I still can’t get to sleep, might as well get up. I get up, open the shutter quietly, because the mosquitoes don’t bother me. I peek out the shutters a little; the wind has died down, a still night. Even the fig tree isn’t rustling. Recep’s light is off. Just as I figured: right to sleep, since he has nothing to think about, the dwarf. Cook the food, do my little handful of laundry and the shopping, and even then he gets rotten peaches, and afterward, he prowls around the streets for hours.
I can’t see the sea but I think of how far it extends and how much farther it could go. The big, wide world! Noisy motorboats and those rowboats you get into with nothing on, but they smell nice, I like them. I hear the cricket. It’s only moved a foot in a week. Then again, I haven’t moved even that much. I used to think the world was a beautiful place; I was a child, a fool. I closed the shutters and fastened the bolt: let the world stay out there.
I sit down on the chair slowly, looking at the tabletop. Things in silence. A half-full pitcher, the water in it standing motionless. When I want to drink I remove the glass cover, fill it, listening to and watching the water flow; the glass tinkles; the water runs; cool air rises; it’s unique; it fascinates me. I’m fascinated, but I don’t drink. Not yet. You have to be careful using up the things that make the time pass. I look at my hairbrush and see my hairs caught in it. I pick it up and begin to clean it out. The weak thin hairs of my ninety years. They’re falling out one by one. Time, I whispered, what they call our years; we shed them that way, too. I stop and set the brush down. It lies there like an insect on its back, revolting me. If I leave everything this way and nobody touches it for a thousand years, that’s how it will stay for a thousand years. Things on top of a table, a key or a water pitcher. How strange; everything in its place, without moving! Then my thoughts would freeze too, colorless and odorless and just sitting there, like a piece of ice.
But tomorrow they’ll come and I’ll think again. Hello, hello, how are you, they’ll kiss my hand, many happy returns, how are you, Grandmother, how are you, how are you, Grandmother? I’ll take a look at them. Don’t all talk at once, come here and let me have a look at you, come close, tell me, what have you been doing? I know I’ll be asking to be fooled, and I’ll listen blankly to a few lines of deception! Well, is that all, haven’t you anything more to say to your Grandmother? They’ll look at one another, talk among themselves, I’ll hear and understand. Then they’ll start to shout. Don’t shout, don’t shout, thank God my ears can still hear. Excuse me, Grandmother, it’s just that our other grandmother doesn’t hear well. I’m not your mother’s mother, I’m your father’s mother. Excuse me, Granny, excuse me! All right, all right, tell me something, that other grandmother of yours, what’s she like? They’ll suddenly get confused and become quiet. What is our other grandmother like? Then I’ll realize that they haven’t learned how to see or understand yet, that’s all right, I’ll ask them again but just as I’m about to ask them, I see that they’ve forgotten all about it. They’re not interested in me or my room or what I’m asking, but in their own thoughts, as I am in mine even now.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Silent House, the second novel by Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk.
1. The novel opens with Fatma and Recep having dinner in their respective quarters of the house. What does this scene suggest about the relationship between the two characters? Did you find anything about Fatma and Recep’s interaction comic or disturbing? As Recep walks through town to the movie theater, how does Pamuk introduce a sense of place and history? How would you describe the atmosphere or tone established by the first chapter?
2. Chapter 2, “Grandmother Waits in Bed,” employs the stream-of-consciousness narrative that Pamuk uses elsewhere in the novel. What does this form of storytelling reveal about Fatma that you might not otherwise know? Does it ultimately make her more sympathetic? What are the advantages of stream-of-consciousness narration in conveying past events? How does this formal device affect your experience of time in the novel? Is it different from or similar to how you experience time in your own life?
3. Fatma reflects “I used to think the world was a beautiful place; I was a child, a fool. I close the shutters and fasten the bolt: let the world stay out there” (p. 17). Later, Hasan, humiliated by his awkward interactions with others, thinks, “When that happens I want to be by myself, when a person is by himself he can relax and think about all the great things he could say and do” (34). Similarly, Faruk, while alone in the archives, reads “from individual pages, the millions of lives and stories jumbled together suddenly took discrete form in my mind”; he becomes “quite happy, deciding that this is history, this colorful vital thing that is coming alive in [his] mind” (p. 83). What role does solitude and the life of the imagination play in the novel? In what ways is such a life of the imagination helpful to the characters? In what ways is it harmful? Ultimately, what do you think the novel says about the powers of the imagination?
4. Storytelling figures as an important theme within Silent House. How do the characters Recep, Fatma, Metin, Hasan, and Faruk employ storytelling to justify their lives and shape their identities? What are the differences and similarities in the way the characters use storytelling?
5. In chapter 18, “Faruk Needs to Find a Story,” Faruk, a history professor and scholar, has a particularly conflicted attitude toward storytelling. First, he considers that “no doubt … the true appeal of history is the pleasure of the story, the power to divert us” (p. 126) and if he “could only find a good story,” his colleagues would “be completely astonished” (p. 129). Later, however, he thinks that “passion for listening to stories leads us astray every time, dragging us off to a world of fantasy, even as we continue to live in one of flesh and blood” (p. 164); he then despairs: “There’s no way to express history, or even life as it is, in words!” (p. 166). What role do you think storytelling plays in history? Can history be adequately conveyed by facts alone? Can a work of fiction, like Silent House, convey history in ways that history books cannot? From reading this novel, or other works by Orhan Pamuk, what do you think is Pamuk’s view of the role of fiction in relation to history?
6. In chapter 19, “Recep Serves the Quiet Dinner Table,” Recep considers the silence of the dinner table: “Maybe they finally understood that words are useless. . . . But there are times when words can touch people, too, that I know” (p. 173). Do you think Pamuk agrees with both aspects of Recep’s observation? How does the Silent House respond to or challenge the limits of language? Are there moments in the novel when you were moved by Pamuk’s language? If so, by which passages?
7. How are the story’s main characters, regardless of class or educational differences, shaped by the effects of orphanhood and illegitimacy? Considering the political and cultural conflicts in the region, what larger commentary might Pamuk be making about Turkey with these motifs?
8. Both Metin and Hasan appear to be conflicted about money. How is this ambivalence reflected in their behavior? What are the other characters’ attitudes toward money and how do these views affect their actions? Do you think the novel portrays materialism as a symptom or a cause of other issues?
9. On page 154, Hasan rages against communism, materialism, and imperialism as being to blame for his dire situation. Is there any justification for his suspicions? On page 293, a bedridden Fatma imagines Recep scheming against her. What do you think animates her fears? What connections does the novel suggest exist between powerlessness and paranoia?
10. Hasan thinks, “I am somebody different, not held down by my past, I have no more memories” (p. 261). Is such surrender of the past possible? What relationship do the other characters have to the past, and does it hinder or help them?
11. On page 133, Metin thinks: “The thing I called me was like a box within a box; it was like there was always something else inside it, maybe if I kept looking I could finally find my real self and express it, but every new box I opened had, instead of a real, true Metin that I could show to Ceylan, just another box hiding him.” Later, Faruk reflects, “One can only claim self-understanding to a certain point, and beyond that one is babbling, whether one knows it or not. It was an oddly liberating thought while it lasted” (p. 285). What do these two perspectives reveal about Metin and Faruk as well as tPamuk’s portrayal of the self? How might these observations by Metin and Faruck ironically exhibit a sense of self-understanding? In your opinion, which of the characters possess the greatest self-understanding? Which possess the least?
12. At one point, Hasan thinks: “Woman is a pitiful creature, it’s not right to treat her badly. My mother, for example, is such a good woman! I don’t like people who show them disrespect, guys who only think about going to bed with them, rich guys and materialistic bastards” (p. 211). Later, however, he confesses that “women scare me sometimes” (p. 259). Then, further in the same chapter, he asserts, “I’m a man, I can do anything” (p. 269). Do you see any connection between these seemingly contradictory statements? Although Hasan and Metin come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, do you notice any similarities in their views of women and gender? How are both boys’ attitudes toward women and gender affected by class and culture?
13. Ömer Selâhattin Kantar (1878–1949) was a noted Turkish archaeologist, museum director, journalist, and playwright. Considering Pamuk’s renown as a journalist, novelist, and museum founder, how might the Nobel Prize–winning author be viewed as a cultural archaeologist? Do you view the respective archival and encyclopedic projects of Faruk and the fictional Selâhattin as misguided or worthy projects? Through these two characters, what might Pamuk be saying about the difficulties and motivations behind any historical or archival project?
14. Although Faruk and Selâhattin claim to be fiercely secular, how does religion strongly impact both men? Do you see anything religious about their obsessions?
15. In chapter 28, “Faruk Watches a Belly Dancer,” Faruk states: “I wanted to escape from my own awareness, to wander freely in a world outside my own mind, but understanding now that I would always be two people, I realized that I’d never be able to let go” (p. 292). Why do you think Faruk has this reaction to the dancer’s interaction with the Western tourists? What does the belly dancer signify to him? How might Faruk’s “double-consciousness” reflect Turkey’s cultural and political identity? Could such a dual identity apply to those from other cultures?
16. Earlier in the novel, Faruk converses with a Turkish man who resembles the American actor Edward G. Robinson and who is berated by his own family for not looking more like the actor; “can’t a person just be himself,” the man complains. Faruk replies that “they’d have just found some other famous original and criticized your inadequate resemblance to him” (p.235). Do you see any connections between Faruk’s reaction to the belly dancer and his conversation with this man?
17. The last sentence of the novel states: “You can’t start out again in life, that’s a carriage ride you only take once, but with a book in your hand, no matter how confusing and perplexing it might be, once you’ve finished it, you can always go back to the beginning; if you like, you can read it through again, in order to figure out what you couldn’t understand before, in order to understand life” (p. 334). How do you interpret these last lines? What does Fatma seem to understand about her life?
18. Consider Fatma’s recollection of what Selâhattin tells her is “the most important article” in his encyclopedia: “The source of all knowledge is experimentation” (p. 217). How might a work of fiction like Silent House be an example such experimentation? Can a novelist “trick you with his literary skill” (p. 231) and still produce a work of historical truth?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This early work by Orhan Pamuk, 2006 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, has just been published in English for the first time. It's a beautiful, complex family story, weaving together the lives of several generations as they gather in a small seaside town outside of Istanbul, Turkey. The family drama is set against the backdrop of the political unrest leading up to the 1980 coup d'etat, and with his usual subtlety, Pamuk draws the connections between family grievances and political conflict.