The Middle Stage - Chandrahas Choudhury - 7 September 2008


On Orhan Kemal's The Idle Years

Novels are a source of comfort and psychological sustenance to their readers, but they can be so to their writers too. This is especially true for writers working in an autobiographical mode. The novel, here, is like a beam turned in upon oneself, lighting up old shadows and nooks -- or it might be thought of as a mirror in which one's old faces successively appear. The forward march of the narrative in this case also a backward journey into time, and the slow time and fruitful agitation of writing throw up memories long submerged.

These are the speculations occasioned by The Idle Years, a novel first published in two parts in 1949 and 1950 by the great Turkish writer Orhan Kemal (often referred to in the English-speaking world as "the Turkish Dickens"), and now newly and strikingly translated by Cengiz Luhal. Although it is sometimes a mistake to link a writer's books too simply to his autobiography, it would seem that a discussion of The Idle Years would at least begin with such a reading.

The unnamed narrator of the book is the son of a charismatic political agitator who is sent into exile with his family after falling foul of the Turkish regime in the 1920s. Brought up in a large house with all the comforts of life, the protagonist is suddenly pitchforked into a life in which the family is always on the move, money is scarce, and the father's temper thunderous. He is forced to work at menial jobs, and begins to keep the company of a set whom he had previously seen only from afar, and with no consideration of their miseries: workers, vagabonds, and prostitutes. He is constantly hungry, and when granted a good meal through luck, comradeship or charity not only eats ravenously but also remembers every dish and every helping for days. He is often consumed by despair and by shame, but most of all loathes the heavy hand and bellowing voice of his father.

This story broadly follows the contours of Kemal's own youth, and it might be seen as part of that current in literature in which writers mull over the weight placed on their lives, in both good and bad ways, by their fathers: the early novels and later autobiographical meditations of VS Naipaul, for instance, or Franz Kafka's anguished Letter To My Father, or even the essays of Kemal's famous countryman Orhan Pamuk (whose Nobel Prize acceptance speech is called "My Father's Suitcase", and who has written a short, admiring foreword for this book).

Indeed, the first part of The Idle Years is called My Father's House, and its closing movement is one in which the protagonist resolves to leave that house, and returns from Beirut to his homeland to strike out on his own. In one of the novel's best passages, the narrator returns to his hometown, Adana, hot with stories of his itinerant life to tell his childhood friends, only to find that nothing is as it used to be. The place the heart thinks of as home is a pillar to one's self but fragile on its own terms.

Kemal's novel beautifully evokes the world-changing ardour and angst of youth, the consolations of friendship, the aches and burns of love, and the redemption of constant misery and hardship by small acts of kindness or brief interludes of escape. He is considered a great writer of dialogue, and in Luhal's translation the reader can see why. Many of his characters are real talkers, but they talk in a stop-start and naturalistic fashion, leaping from one subject to another, or revealing some particularity of their character through a repeated emphasis. They don't always know what they are saying, though characters in other kinds of novels seem to.

The Idle Years ends with a scene in which the protagonist, still impoverished, marries his beloved wearing a borrowed suit, shoes, and tie. The newlyweds are excited by the beautiful gifts that they have been given, and begin to construct a castle of dreams upon them, only to find out that the groom's grandmother borrowed them all from family and friends to give the wedding a glitter, and that the goods must now all be returned. This episode is symbolic of the whole story, in which hope and yearning are always trying to break free of the chains of reality, and disappointment is quickly forgotten. The last line of Kemal's novel - "So we carried on with our lives, appreciating all that we had" - seems both an observation of a fact and a piece of friendly advice to the reader.

And some other essays on Turkish literature: "Nazim Hikmet in prison" (Hikmet and Kemal were contemporaries, and spent time in prison together, and indeed one register of The Idle Years is distinctly Hikmetian), "Orhan Veli Kanik all of a sudden", and "On Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red".

Chandrahas, 11:28 AM