The voices of six main characters narrate alternate chapters in the beautifully structured counterpoint of this novel (akin to the structure of modern novels by Virginia Woolf or William Faulkner). This work is the second of Pamuk’s ten books but is only now translated. The novel’s characters are members of a fading bourgeois Turkish family. It is the summer of 1980, when deadly clashes between fascist and communist paramilitary groups flared in Turkey; the novel explores the forces in Turkish society which cause such violence and yield the military coup at the end of 1980.
The youngest of Pamuk’s six narrators is Hasan, a confused, resentful teenaged cousin who rages against society and belongs to a fascist youth group. He acts out in ways which violently affect his well-off cousins and propel him toward a menacing destiny in Istanbul. “All our country’s sorrows,” he ends by saying, “are on account of some bastards who just enjoy playing with us, but one day I’m going to make fun out of their games. I don’t know yet what it is that I’m going to do, but…Watch out for me from now on!” (324-5)
The family which cousin Hasan’s actions tragically affect is made up of a leftist sister – Nilgun, a lovely college student – and her two brothers (one is a teenager, and the other is an alcoholic historian in his thirties, who plays a role at the start of Pamuk’s third novel, The White Hotel). The rest of this enmeshed family consists of the aged grandmother, Fatma, and her perceptive, compassionate housekeeper, a dwarf, who is the illegitimate son of the late grandfather yet “tries to take care of everybody.” (305) The three grandchildren are visiting their grandmother’s home, which has served them since childhood as an alluring, summer beach house near Istanbul.
Fatma, ninety and frail, is vigilant about behavior in her household yet unable even to know what happens there. Feeling trapped at night in the upstairs bedroom of the silent house, she thinks often of death and especially about her deceased husband, a bitterly disappointed intellectual who never completed his enlightened skeptic’s encyclopedia and whose starkly secular voice haunts her reveries and much of the novel: “we all sink into Nothingness, Fatma;…you decay down to the last strand of hair, with no right even to hope of coming back again.” (297)
At the core of this novel’s power are the moments of existential self-confrontation experienced by the six vivid narrating characters, and particularly by Fatma, who is haunted by her late husband – this cranky, nearly voiceless old woman to whom Pamuk gives a voice. Analyzed almost unto death by her late husband, she feels her interior life spill helplessly out of her, enraged and excoriated: “it’s as though my outside has become my inside and my inside my outside, and in the dark I can’t figure out which one I am.” (331)
The grandchild who most shares Fatma’s alarmed self-awareness is the historian in his thirties, Faruk. And his crisis arises partly from his doubt about writing history. He has come to see the writing of history as pure storytelling, in his time and place in Turkey and not only there (for, of course, corrupting deception and self-deception exist not only in Asia Minor). Faruk’s self-consciousness about what he does is shared by Pamuk himself, and the works of this great novelist – for example, My Name Is Red and Snow – become increasingly ambitious in content and narrative experiment. These wonderful novels are invariably filled with moving characters like Fatma, Faruk, and even dangerous Hasan, who struggle to fabricate their identities in the midst of a collapsing society and, so, to “make sense of the world by means of tales.” (165)
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