Tag Archives: Turkey

Silent House (1982) – Orhan PAMUK

I’m in a bit of a bind, so you’ll have to bear with me. The books that usually appear on this blog are the ones I’ve finished. I don’t put stuff up here about books I don’t finish, because, well, if you haven’t finished a book, there’s not really any point in reviewing it, right?

The bind is this. I have to review this book. I promised to read and review all the shortlisted titles on the Man Asian Longlist this year as part of the Shadow Jury. But I can’t finish Silent House. I just can’t.

I have tried. I have, since the beginning of the year, had it sat next to my bed as other, more interesting novels pass me by. I have, every few days, girdled my loins and opened the pages, in an attempt to penetrate a wall of text that simply isn’t going in.

I have made it through about 150 pages, which is about 120 pages more than I otherwise would have. I have no excuse, other than this: I now fully understand why English-speaking publishers waited thirty years to have this, Pamuk’s second novel, published.

Set in the dilapidated seaside village of Cennethisar, it tells the story of a family coming together under one house for the first time in years. The matriarch of the family who owns the house, Fatma, is living in the past, remembering her glory days when her husband, the town doctor, knew everyone and everything. Her helper, Recep, is the bastard son of her late husband, and also a dwarf. To say the two have a tense relationship would be an understatement. Despite his best attempts to provide her every need, the old woman cannot see past the fact that this man is the symbol of her husband’s infidelity, and refuses to acknowledge anything he does as a good thing.

The grandchildren that have arrived in the town see their grandmother as old and decrepit – which, in their defence, is the public appearance she has. This is perhaps the most interesting part of the novel – the fact that Fatma, in the chapters she narrates, seems to be still quite sharp and with-it, but hre outward physicality is failing her sharp mind. Certainly for the first half, though, nothing is really made of this, an angle that could have been pushed so much further.

Other chapters are narrated by Fatma’s grandchildren, including the dull-as-dishwater Faruk, an academic writing about some obscure part of history; Recap himself, who spends much of his personal time defending himself from people calling him names and otherwise being unkind; Hasan, the young student who seems to have fallen in with the wrong crowd – a crowd who go around threatening local shopkeepers to pay them protection money; and Metin, who, to be honest, I’m having trouble recalling.

It all seems so insignificant, which is ironic, considering the political undertones of Hanum’s activities, including his love for Nilgun, a self-proclaimed leftist. There’s so much potential there, but none of it comes to light. Well, maybe it does later, but I’m out.

Sorry, guys. I just didn’t get this one at all.

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The Museum of Innocence (2009) – Orhan PAMUK

Clearly it’s been some time since I’ve written anything here. Sorry for that – it’s been quite a busy few months, and I’ve not had a whole load of time nor (for probably the first time in my life) inclination to do much reading. But I’m getting back into it, and I’ve read a few interesting tomes in the meantime. So here’s me trying to catch up on the giant backlog of posting I should have been doing.

Istanbul is a romantic city – the old clichés of east meeting west, all that kind of stuff, are true. And in the 1970s, Kemal, a young, rich socialite falls in love with, Füsun, one of his distant relatives. Of course, this cannot be, for he is engaged, and she has no interest in him. But as his love begins to consume his life, Kemal begins to take steps towards an obsession that will dominate his every waking thought, and change his life irrevocably.

I don’t think I really liked Kemal, in the end. He spends so much of his time pining for something he can’t have, without seeming to realise the girl he wants doesn’t necessarily want him, that he simply becomes miserable for its own sake. It’s almost as though he is only happy if he has something to be miserable about. And in many ways, he is the ultimate objectifier of women. He is in love with Füsun not for who she is as a person, but with the items she owns or touches – things that relate to her are more important to him, in the end, than Füsun herself. It’s this attitude towards women that really bugs me, and I know that’s probably the point of the novel, but it did nothing to endear me to Kemal, and since this is such an unneccesarily long novel, I was unimpressed each time he stole something.

There are some hilariously awkward scenes where Kemal, who just never seems to get the hint, goes to Füsun’s family house every night for months on end, seemingly oblivious to the fact that no one else ants him to be there. There are some less hilarious, but no less awkward scenes, where Kemal goes about stealing all these possessions of Füsun’s, so he can surround himself with them in his run down apartment, replacing the love for her with the love for the idea of her, if that makes any sense. It is an obsession that has no basis in reality, for Kemal truly becomes obsessed by his obsession, losing sight of what he wanted in the first place.

The Museum of Innocence is also far, far too long for its own good. As I said my review of Snow, I love Pamuk’s style, but the things he writes about are less enthralling, to say the least. The fact that he manages to stretch this story out for so long is a testament to his ability to just keep writing, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing. His descriptions of Istanbul in the 1970s are nice, and he does manage to evoke the neighbourhood in spectacular fashion. But the plot rapidly becomes repetitive, with scenes that were once funny or poignant played out again and again and again. The law of diminishing returns is in full force here, and by the end, you don’t actually want Kemal to be happy.

It is a relief, therefore, to read the inevitable end of his infatuation with Füsun, in the physical sense. Her death is the only way I could have satisfactorily believed their relationship could work, because the difference between what Kemal wanted, and the actual reality of what this relationship meant was too great to be hurdled. And the way in which it occurs – something so random, so unplanned, so opposite to all the thinking and worrying Kemal has put into the possibilities of his future with her, is a nice touch, too.

I so want to love and read Orhan Pamuk. I have always wanted to go to Turkey, and I feel that, as the most famous Turkish author, I should love everything he does. But The Museum of Innocence does nothing for his reputation in my mind. Maybe if it were half the length, this could have been great, but unfortunately, the masterpiece on love, loss and growing up Pamuk was aiming for rapidly becomes repetitive, boring, with an unrelatable main character who gets what he deserves.

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Snow (2002) – Orhan PAMUK

So I started reading this novel three months ago – in the last uni holidays. For me, that’s a really long time ago. The problem is, I kept picking it up and putting it down. But finally, I have finished it. That’s the greatest thing I’ve done this year, I think. And if this review smells of Stockholm Syndrome, I apologise in advance.

Ka, a Turkish poet living in Germany, returns to his home country to investigate a spate of suicides in the small town of Kars. There, he finds an interesting cast of characters, each with a unique take on what is going on in the village. Of particular interest to Ka, though, is his old flame, Ipek. But as the snow falls around the town, they are closed in, and something terrible is coming.

Ok, first things first. This book is legitimately interesting. It’s one of the few contemporary novels (The Reluctant Fundamentalist is another good one) that actually faces one of the central tenants of Western society at the moment: the problem of Islam. Because, let’s face it, we do have one. Pamuk, as an exiled Turk, has an interesting perspective on the problem, and his ability to discuss and dissect both sides of the argument make for interesting reading.

There’s quite a bit of symbolism going on in the novel, and after a while, it’s pretty clear what the symbols are. Or what I think they are. Kars is a synecdoche for Turkey, and Ka the poet is Pamuk the author. His return to his hometown (read: homeland) means people question him and what he stands for – and he gets a lot of criticism for not being religious. There is definitely an anti-atheism theme to many of the characters who populate Kars, and they constantly question Ka’s beliefs. I don’t truly believe him to be an atheist – I think he attributes the poems he writes to God, or someone higher, at least – but because he is not as sure in his beliefs as many other people in the town, he is a site for attack. Which is interesting in its own right.

What is more interesting, though, is the idea of ‘political Islam’, and the people behind the concept. These people are so determined to return Turkey from its current fate as a secular Islamic state, that they will do anything to ensure this goal. This ties into the girls committing suicide – questions of removing their hijab become vital to their suicides as the pressure from both sides becomes too much. Women committing suicide to make a political point is an old technique, but Pamuk uses it to great effect here.

Pamuk is also an excellent writer. particularly the opening chapter, which is genuinely beautiful. And the descriptions of snow throughout the book are lovely.

Ok, so here’s the caveat. Snow is perhaps one of the most boring, tedious books I’ve ever read.

Well, that’s not totally true. Here’s the problem. Pamuk clearly had a message/issue he wanted to talk about. That’s fine. What he didn’t realise (and clearly his editor didn’t either) is that you don’t need to have huge tracts of circular dialogue between characters going on and on and on for 400 odd pages. Readers are not stupid. We get it. Again and again, Ka and Blue (the leader of the political Islamists) discuss the problems facing modern Islam and Turkey. The problem is, they talk about the same issues each and every time they talk. And there’s no finality to it. Not that I’m expecting a solution to every problem – but most authors have the decency to show even their own viewpoint. But, no  – that’s too good for Pamuk. He sits on the fence the entire time. So what’s the point?!

It’s not just Ka and Blue that face this problem. Each time Ka talks to someone, it’s like he’s having the same conversation again and again. And there’s a lot of reported dialogue in this novel. It’s not bad dialogue – it’s just that sometimes, I wonder if this wouldn’t work better as a play. Or a film. Or anything but the written word. Well, maybe an extended essay would be ok. Each conversation just tears at you, until you have to throw Snow at the wall in frustration, and wander off to find something else to read. Anything else.

This novel has an interesting central premise. But everything else is as boring as batshit.

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The Siege (1970) – Ismail KADARE

Now that I’m on holidays, I’m slowly working through the pile of books that I have accumulated throughout the year. This was last on the pile, and as such, first off it. I love book pile logic. And while people scream at me that holidays are times for reading trashy novels, I’ll read pretty much anything in the holidays – as long as I don’t have to write about it afterwards. Clearly, this is not working out.

The fifteenth century is drawing to a close, and the never ending war between the East and the West is continuing. The Turkish Army has come to invade Albania, but the mighty Christian stronghold is refusing to bow down to the Islamic world. The Siege takes place over several months, and darts between members of the Turkish and Albanian camps. These two viewpoints combined, the brutal truth of warfare is revealed, as everyone begins to feel the effects of a siege that should never have happened.

I don’t know quite what I was expecting, but The Siege turned out to be much better than what I thought it was going to be. Far from being a dry, boring recount of some obscure part of Albanian history, Kadare has created an excellent story that deals with a whole load of themes in not a great deal of time. But, this book is the perfect length – it doesn’t drag, and while the first 80 or so pages are very pacy (and could almost be a stand-alone short story), the rest of the book slows down to deal with some pretty interesting ideas about religion and warfare. What really struck me, though, was how relevant this book is. Even though it was written in the 70s (it’s just been translated into English), and it’s about an historical event from the fifteenth century, everything it says is totally and completely true about today. And I know that history is relevant, blah blah, but after this, I think it is even more. After 600 years, the West and Islam are still fighting, and the arguments are still the same. I particularly enjoyed the speech in the middle of the book, where the Quartermaster is trying to explain to the chronicler why they are really there, and how they will win this siege, but still need to remain vigilant to wipe out the Albanian religion and their language.

Kadare made this siege up – though (apparently) it is clearly based on an actual event in Albanian history. What I like about this novel is that, while Kadare is obviously Albanian, the vast majority of the novel is told through the Turkish point of view. The main characters are all high ranking officials in the Turkish army, and it is through their eyes that we see the siege. Each one is out for himself, and for them to come together to work as a group is a small miracle. There is a great deal of political dealings and back-stabbings that go on. I love it. The vast cast of characters could quite easily get out of hand, but Kadare handles them with such skill, they are a joy to read, and each time a character returns to the page, they are instantly brought to life again. Of particular interest to me was the Chronicler, who is on this campaign to write a history – and since its the 15th century, it is in epic poem form. So he spends all his time trying to describe what is going on around him in the most flowery language possible. He’s a genuinely nice guy, who is there not for the war, but because he wants to watch. And since he hasn’t before, his eyes are pulled right open.

The Siege is probably unlike anything I’ve read before. Certainly, it’s the least recent historical fiction I’ve ever read. But, it truly remains relevant in today’s crazy, mixed-up world, and hopefully can find a wider audience. Go and find it.

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