sundayszaman.com - Andrew Finkel - 19 October 2008

Another Orhan

Turkey's lone Nobel laureate put paid to the notion that creativity thrives on adversity. "A century of banning and burning books, of throwing writers into prison, killing them or branding them as traitors and sending them into exile, continuously denigrating them in the press -- none of this has enriched Turkish literature -- it has only made it poorer," he said.

These were not off-the-cuff remarks but the opening address as guest of honor at the start of the Frankfurt Buchmesse, the world's most prestigious and commercially important book fair. Turkey's president was seated in the front row listening to this criticism before making a little speech of his own.

These remarks, although important, were not the most interesting part of Orhan Pamuk's address. He spoke eloquently about a more subtle form of oppression -- the sense one is too small or too foreign, too outside the mainstream -- to have a voice that matters. The Frankfurt Book Fair is an overwhelming event, kilometers of books and publishers' stands. "No writer can come to Frankfurt, I think, without succumbing to this numbness, this hollow surprise," he said. "It reminds us how small we are next to the totality of books, human memory and all the world's voices." And of course this sense of exclusion festers. The feeling of isolation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. "We Turks have complained so much about the world misunderstanding us that it has become part of our national identity," he added. His own success and the presence in Frankfurt of so many Turkish writers and intellectuals has helped erode this self-imposed gloom. It has helped Turkish authors leap the barrier of a censorious state whose self-esteem is so brittle that it cannot tolerate Youtube.com.

Some years back, in book-years, more than three novels ago, I had a conversation with Pamuk who tried to explain a different sense of isolation when he first tried to make his way in the literary world. The initial hurdle was not overcoming the skepticism of a foreign audience, but of Turkey's own literary establishment. "How can you be a writer?" his friends asked, since he had never experienced the backwardness of village life. His own voice was unashamedly rooted in the back streets of urbane Nişantaşı, an appalling handicap in a society which expects writers to be promenading down the main avenues of gritty social realism.

It was conversation that came back to mind the other day when a book arrived through the mail. It is called "The Idle Years" and tells the story of a family's descent into dire poverty after the father, a political dissident, is forced into exile. The narrator is the son for whom every avenue of advance is closed. I dreaded opening it, fearing it would be one of those books with a "mission civilatrice" against which I had been warned. Instead, I discovered a book of extraordinary charm. The author, Orhan Kemal, is well known to Turkish readers, but English readers are now fortunate to have Cengiz Lugal's seamlessly fluent translation. It also, to my surprise, had a very brief introduction by Pamuk, who solves in his own way the mystery of why the book is so appealing. He says it derives a delight in the intimacy of everyday life and a genuine optimism from those who by rights should be given to despair.

Kemal has been likened to a Turkish Charles Dickens, but misleadingly so. The book has none of Dickens' complex plotting and exaggerated characters. It is a loosely disguised autobiographical memoir, rich in details of time and place. But it is also a subtle story about coming of age, about the self-consciousness and vanity of youth, and the folly of measuring yourself against those who you think others think you should be. It is also about coming to terms with authority. The book begins with a child unable to find acceptance in his father's eyes and ends with the author as a young man winning the acceptance of a prospective father-in-law who sees him for what he is.

It may be fanciful, but it is an apt analogy for the literary world of which Kemal was a founder and whose coming of age was celebrated by another Orhan in Frankfurt last week.