ORHAN KEMAL AND MODERN TURKISH LITERATURE
I write as the incoming Director of the Program in Middle East and South
Asian Studies at the University of Illinois, but also as a literary
translator: I translate contemporary Arabic fiction into English.
Thus, I am very concerned with getting Middle Eastern literatures into
English. At the present political moment, I think it is crucial to
provide as many channels of information to US and other English-speaking
audiences, and I know that there are eager readerships out there.
Although I know something about modern Turkish literature (I'm also a
professor of comparative and world literature at the University of
Illinois), I am by no means an expert. My colleague, Professor Mahir
Saul, anthropologist with expertise in African and Middle Eastern
societies, has kindly written a short description of Kemal from his
knowledge of the subject. I provide it for you below.
Orhan Kemal is one of the giants of the Turkish novel, of the period
1950-1970. There were three outstanding names in this golden period of
Turkish prose: Yasar Kemal, Kemal Tahir, and Orhan Kemal (the three
Kemals, as the saying went; and in no case was that their full or real
name I might add).
these only Yasar Kemal has been widely translated, and achieved an
international fame that is well deserved in my opinion (thanks to the
fact that his wife was a superb translator into English and
well-connected in the international literary circles). The other two are
equally important and have very different authorial personas, but
unknown internationally. Kemal Tahir's oeuvre runs into the problem that
to appreciate his genius one needs considerable background in Turkish
culture and history, and as well some hint of the polemics of post-1960
that drove him in his artistic life.
Orhan Kemal, in contrast, is very accessible to an international
audience. Now that Orhan Pamuk has grown so big in international
literature, the momentum could be used to introduce Orhan Kemal as part
of the context that made him, that is the remarkable growth of the
Turkish novel after WW II.
Orhan Kemal is very different from Orhan Pamuk, in the settings he uses,
in his sensibility, in his orientation to literary creation. The
difference feeds from the great divergences in the biographies of these
two authors, in terms of regional background, class, epoch, and
education. Orhan Kemal created a literary universe out of unassuming men
and women, the powerless, the mute, with a humanity and a skill of
narration that matches those of the greatest novelists of the 19th and
early 20th centuries.
He will easily find a readership if he is translated.
In my opinion this initiative deserves all the support we can muster.
Program in Comparative and World Literature
University of Illinois