Why is Orhan Kemal Important? - M.Nuri Gültekin - 26 August 2008



Why is Orhan Kemal Important?

Mehmet Nuri Gültekin

Orhan Kemal’s artistic arsenal consists of novels which reflect lived experiences from Turkey in a broad historical interval that spans from 19th century to the end of 1960s. Immigration from peripheral towns to cities, population exchanges, transformations in farming etc. form the major themes in his novels. To tell the truth, it is impossible to feel a lack of emblemetic characters in Orhan Kemal’s writings: One of the immediately recognized aspects of Orhan Kemal’s novels is Kemal’s keen engagement to the worlds of the characters he creates. He gets involved with his characters so deeply that pages-long dialogues do not even tire or bore the reader. One feels as if he is in the middle of the conversation and even like becoming a part of it. Orhan Kemal’s characters are ordinary people and Kemal succeeds in creating  immortal figures from them.

What makes Orhan Kemal an important critical realist is that he reflects the social world that surrounds him with a distinct literary mode. He illustrates the fervent social, economical and political transformations of Turkey. Kemal is not a “village novelist” but a narrator of how peasants are being exploited during their flee to big cities as means of cheap labor in an aesthetic literary style. He is the first writer in Turkish literature who mentioned women workers in the burgeoning capitalism. He is the novelist of poor children, workers, peasants who came to cities for the first time, agricultural workers who live under feudal lords, women, and poor lives in working-class neighbourhoods. He is an impressive humanist. None of his works contain despair. He fleshes his characters out with their living conditions not their ethnic identities: Greeks, Armenians, Jews, Kurds, Turks and Arabs meet on a humanist point in his novels. He successfully narrates the transformative influences of mechanization, technical knowledge, and factories, of labor in other words, with a challenging aesthetic language. All of his works mirror the historical and societal transformations of Turkey. All the transformation therein, all the facts, events, characters reflect the drastic change of Ottoman Empire to Turkish Republic, and further changes in modern Turkey until 1960s. If one needs literature to get to know Anatolia, Orhan Kemal’s writings must definitly be the first stop in this long journey. His novels Mourtaza, The Cobbler and His Sons, On Fertile Lands,Birds of Exile, The Prisoners, The Farm of The Mistress, The Incident, Bloody Lands are classics of Turkish literature and they deserve taking place in the greater literary canon of world literatures.

In short, Orhan Kemal’s oeuvre is a serious key to Turkey and to Turkey’s past one hundred and fifty years, and also a very entertaining reading experience.