Orhan Pamuk’s Silent House, recently published in trade paperback, is haunted by the looming specter of political unrest. The novel, set in Turkey, begins in the summer of 1980, just weeks before a coup d’état would topple the country’s government. The coup lurks like a shadow on nearly every page, casting a pall over the reunion of three siblings: Faruk, Nilgün, and Metin.
These characters, who gather at their grandmother’s house in Cennethisar, a town 30 miles east of Istanbul, lived in extraordinarily charged times—and a proper grasp of those charged times will aid your reading group’s discussion of Silent House. Pamuk’s novel delves deep into the fragile psyche of a country that has only been a republic since 1922, when the overthrow of Sultan Mehmed VI rang the death knell of the once-great Ottoman Empire. Even before 1980, the Republic of Turkey had already experienced two coups d’état: one in 1960, and another in 1971. The new governments established in the wake of these insurrections failed to achieve stability, leading to the seething, uneasy political environment occupied by the characters in Silent House.
Nilgün, for example, is a “typical leftie” (her brother’s words) who wants to see the republic preserved and recommit itself to social justice. Opposing her is childhood friend Hasan, a right-wing agitator; near the beginning of the novel, he and a friend bully some shopkeepers into giving money to a nationalist youth movement. This sort of intimidation infiltrated the fabric of everyday Turkish life, but outright violence was also a reality for many citizens in the fragile republic. Thousands of political assassinations on both the left and right took place in the years leading up to September 12, 1980.
It was then—mere weeks after the events of Silent House take place—that the military intervened, establishing national martial law, disbanding the government, and suspending the constitution. Military tribunals were set up; hundreds of thousands of people were arrested and many more were blacklisted. In the end, the coup resulted in 50 executions, and many more Turkish citizens lost their lives through circumstances related to the turmoil.
Kenan Evren, Chief of the General Turkish Staff, initiated the coup, and he ended up serving, amid much controversy, as the nation’s president from 1980 to 1989. To this day, Turkey is plagued by political instability, and a spate of protests aimed at broadening personal freedoms rocked the nation in the late spring of 2013.
In an internal monologue, Silent House’s youngest sibling, Metin, makes a plea for a placid Turkey. “Turkey isn’t such a terrible place, there are nice stores opening all the time, one day this senseless street violence will end, too, and we’ll have right here in Istanbul everything the shops carry in Europe and America.” But try as they might, the characters in Pamuk’s gripping novel can’t quite avoid their nation’s upheaval; and just as Silent House informs the headlines swirling around modern Turkey, so does history shed light on the book’s rich narrative.