i enjoyed this book tremendously. a few hours from instanbul, in what used to be country-side but is now a posh sea town, an elderly widow lives in ai enjoyed this book tremendously. a few hours from instanbul, in what used to be country-side but is now a posh sea town, an elderly widow lives in a decrepit old house. the book is set in 1980 (though this date is never mentioned in the book; the book was published in 1983) and takes place during the days in which fatma’s grandchildren pay her their annual visit. the eldest is a university professor in history, the second oldest a university student and the youngest a high schooler. the narration is multivocal: the elderly lady, her house servant, two of the three grandchildren, the servant's nephew, also a high schooler, and a friend of one of the grandchildren speak in alternating chapters.
the themes the novel covers are many, and it is a sign of pamuk's genius that he can address them all with effortlessness and without ever sounding pedantic or heavy handed. there is the issue of love -- romantic love -- a very fraught issue in this particular book and, if i remember correctly, in Snow (my only other foray into pamuk-land) too -- and familial love. there is the conflict between left-wing (communist) non-believers and muslim fundamentalists, just on the eve of a military coup (the coup is not mentioned, but the tension is high). there is aging. there is family trauma. there are sick and deformed bodies (the servant is a little person, or, in the book's rendition, a dwarf), there is the restlessness of young men, and, last but definitely not least, there is a nice deep take on history and learnedness.
fatma is on a 70-year self-imposed exile in the locality where the book takes place. most of her sections of the book are cynical, crotchety, and angry commentaries on her current conditions, including her grandchildren's visit, and accounts of her married life. her husband selâhattin, now dead, spent his entire life working on a science-based, anti-religious encyclopedia, an enlightenment-flavored project for his fellow asians, who, in his view, are very backwards and nowhere near the intellectual level of europeans. the liminal place of turkey and in particular of instanbul on the border of asia and europe is clearly and centrally thematized. the vicissitudes of the encyclopedia, its author, and the way he chooses to support himself in the process of writing it, are one of the backbones of the story. the immense project leads fatma's husband to insanity. yet fatma remains so beholden to him that she reports faithfully his rants against religion and a theological understanding of the world – the rants go on for paragraphs, and are as irritating (because he rants at her, and is clearly obsessed and increasingly unmoored) as they are interesting. she also feels compelled to remain in the exile to which he brought her (they escape istanbul under circumstances which may well have been the result of selâhattin's self-aggrandizing paranoia). she describes without anger the pillaging of her family’s jewelry selâhattin did in order to keep himself and his wife alive while he worked monomaniacally on his encyclopedia. tragically, and predictably, in spite of the man's assiduous work, the encyclopedia never gets completed.
this intellectual effort is mirrored in grandson faruk, a history professor who is profoundly disillusioned with his job and work. while on holiday at his grandmother's, though, he discovers the local archives and draws new energy and vitality from the idea of writing a book in which he simply lists past events (the documents he finds in the archives are transactional court records from, if i’m not wrong, the 16th century, and deal mostly with daily disputes over small matters) without commentary or a thesis. in a number of chapters he reflects enthusiastically on a vision of history as simple compilation of archival records. this contrasts with but also complements his grandfather's encyclopedic effort. whereas his grandfather (whom faruk never mentions, thus giving us the impression that probably he knows nothing about him) failed massively at his recasting the entirety of knowledge in lay terms, faruk gives up on seeking sense altogether, letting facts speak for themselves, or not speak at all, or speak only through whatever story-telling the reader wants to build with them.
i found this whole part, this struggling with culture, knowledge and history, the most compelling part of the book. in a way, all the characters struggle with meaning-making, some through politics, some through religion, in such a way as to put the positioning of turkish culture in the changing political landscape of the 20th century at the heart of the book.
but i was also fascinated by the depiction of masculinity. both high schoolers are enamored of women who do not reciprocate their love, and, shockingly, they become quite aggressive and violent in their pursuit of these girls. the adult men are either failed intellectuals or abused and disenfranchised cripples (the dwarf and his limping brother).
in the basement of the house lies the big secret of the dwarf and his brother, illegitimate sons of selâhattin and his and fatma's former house-servant. it is essential for fatma to keep the familial bond between the dwarf and the rest of the family secret, and this secret haunts the house and the family, seeding violence, madness, and failure.
fatma’s own brand of insanity includes obsessing over the imperative that this secret be never revealed to the young people -- that the fact that recep, the disabled servant, is their uncle remain forever hidden. but this shame ends up rotting everyone’s lives. i know too little about turkish history and culture to assess whether the secret of recep’s birth stands for some larger national secrets. in the context of the family, though, recep, the only character in the novel beside fatma who knows everything, is the only decent family member, the sole bringer of sanity to a crumbling home. ...more
i'm almost done with this. this book is breaking my heart. maybe my heart is particularly breakable these days, because other people's reviews don't si'm almost done with this. this book is breaking my heart. maybe my heart is particularly breakable these days, because other people's reviews don't suggest a similarly pained response. more when i finish....more