For anyone like me who loves reading fiction, searching out Turkish novels that have been translated into English is a great way of finding out about a whole range of aspects of Turkey's society, history, culture and geography. I recently discovered that the first two of Orhan Kemal's semi-autobiographical novels are available in English, beautifully translated by Cengiz Lugal. Having read both of these in the space of one day, I am hoping to find the next two in the series in English as soon as possible, as I doubt that my Turkish will ever be at a level to read long texts.
Orhan Kemal -- a short biography
Kemal was born Mehmet Raşit Öğütçu in Adana in 1914, adopting his pen name Orhan Kemal at a later date. His father, Abdulkadir Kemal, was trained as a lawyer but became an MP for Kastamonu during the early years of the republic. He established the Ahali Party, which proved to be politically unpopular and was rapidly dissolved, forcing the whole family to flee the country and take refuge in Syria and Lebanon. Kemal therefore had to abandon his formal education at this point but later returned alone to Adana in 1932, theoretically to continue his schooling, but in practice most of his time was taken up with eking out a living working as a laborer, a weaver and eventually a clerk. He began writing during this period, concentrating mostly on poems. During his military service, he was sentenced to five years' imprisonment for his rather outspoken political opinions. While he was incarcerated in a Bursa jail, he met up with the famous poet Nazim Hikmet, who became both his fiercest critic and also his chief educator. Hikmet encouraged Kemal to work on prose. Following his release, Kemal moved to İstanbul, where he continued to make a living on a series of jobs whilst working on his literary career with the continuing support of Hikmet. He died in 1970 in Sofia.
Over the course of his life, Kemal published several volumes of poetry, many novels, plays and film scripts. Thanks to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, much of his work has now been translated into 13 different languages, providing large parts of the world with access to this important Turkish writer. The novels that describe his life offer a truly realistic picture of life for the poor and underprivileged members of society who are struggling to make ends meet. Kemal's stories of life amongst the underclass have been compared with Charles Dickens' portrayal of the poorer members of society. Although I'm not convinced that Kemal's work has quite the same depth, he nevertheless writes with a refreshing honesty and lucidity, offering a wholly realistic portrayal of hardship and suffering.
‘My Father's House'
The background of the books is full of deprivation, but the characters remain largely hopeful and show a great deal of determination to improve their lives. “My Father's House” describes Kemal's childhood, starting from his early years in Turkey in which he lived with his, quite frankly, bullying and abusive father. Due to his father's involvement in politics, the family was forced to move to Lebanon. Here the family opened a restaurant where Kemal, abandoning (quite willingly) his education, was given no choice but to work long hours. With the ultimate demise of their business, the family was reduced to even more abject poverty with long periods of unemployment. Despite his father's aggressive child-rearing tactics, Kemal came to realize the importance of the family's dynamics for survival in the harsh environment they had found themselves in. “What would happen, I wondered, if my father suddenly died? It seemed that his very existence held the magic that kept the family together,” he discovered. The theme of family unity is prevalent throughout the book.
Their life in Beirut living as impoverished political refugees was, for the whole family, a harsh contrast to their former life where they had lived comfortably and commanded the respect of those around them. The precarious and dangerous nature of their life as immigrants is brought home to Kemal when the Greek family he had befriended suddenly disappears -- having been forced to leave the country. When Kemal is unceremoniously sacked from his job, he makes the decision to find a way to return to Adana. He returns ostensibly to continue with his education, but finds much has changed in his hometown and instead becomes, like many a teenage boy all over the world, more interested in playing football and dreaming of being picked for a national team.
‘The Idle Years'
The next part in the series, “The Idle Years,” follows the central character's attempts to settle back into his former hometown. He moves in with his grandmother but finds the change in his circumstances to be totally overwhelming. He not only has to cope with abject poverty, but also with the complete loss of status in an ever-changing society. These formative years are set against the background caused by the upheavals of the war years, the immense changes brought about by the introduction of the republic and the rapid industrialization of the nation. He refers frequently to “my hooked nose, my disreputable shoes, my withered hands, my gaunt features and my frayed trousers …”
In an attempt to win back some measure of self-esteem, he and his friend enroll themselves as apprentices at a weaving factory, where they work long hours learning the skills of the looms in return for no money and no guarantee of employment at the end of the training. During this stint, he witnesses an accident which the factory owners were quick to blame on one of the workers, rather than accepting responsibility for the poorly maintained machines. Whether it was the realization of the dangerous nature involved in factory work, the injustice of the hierarchy or the fact that the demands of his work interfered with his football training that caused him to quit, is not made clear.
Like many other young and hopeful men of the time, our hero decides to try his luck in İstanbul, dreaming of making his fortune. Of course, life in the big city proves to be even harder than in Adana, with opportunities for work being few and far between. His attempts to find work were fruitless and “Eventually we had our fill of the wonders of İstanbul. This was because we were almost always hungry and beautiful sights didn't fill our stomachs.” He returns to Adana and eventually finds work as a clerk in an office, where his main focus of interest becomes his infatuation with a girl from a nearby factory. A bizarre courtship, which consists mostly of our hero standing mournfully outside the girl's house, ends in their marriage.
These books bring to life a very formative period in the history of this country with their descriptions of the realities of life for the average person. The stories are full of suffering that borders on the tragic, but nevertheless there is an element of humor. Retrospectively, the narrator is able to make fun of his youthful, obsessive behavior, his overblown sense of pride and the many mistakes he made in life. The characters have an inspiring ability to help and support one another and each and every one remains hopeful that things will eventually improve.