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The Idle Years, By Orhan Kemal, trans. Cengiz Lugal
'Immortal' of Turkish literature gives a
voice to the voiceless
Reviewed by Moris Farhi
Thursday, 30 October 2008
Orhan Kemal (1914-1970), a poet, novelist, playwright and
master of short stories, is an "immortal of Turkish
literature", a soubriquet bestowed on him long before his
death. The Idle Years comprises the first two volumes of a
four-volume autobiographical work, which he designated as
the "diaries of a nobody".
These two volumes recount his early years in the 1920s and
1930s; first in Adana, where he was born, then exile and
impoverishment in Beirut, where his father, a lawyer and
erstwhile member of the nascent Turkish parliament, had to
escape with his family for daring form an opposition party.
The latter part of the book relates Kemal's repatriation,
his failure to find employment in Istanbul, and his return
to Adana, to a humble job and marriage.
Both volumes provide ample evidence of Kemal's love and
compassion for everyman, particularly poor "nobodies" for
whom the acquisition of daily bread demanded Herculean
labours. The vigour of his prose and his unswerving
integrity in portraying starving children, oppressed women,
the plight of factory, farm and migrant workers, the lives
of prisoners and the love and friendship of the
disadvantaged, deliver a trenchant voice for the voiceless.
The gifts of his youth blossomed when Kemal, like many
Turkish writers before him, was imprisoned, in 1939, for his
socialist views. In The Idle Years, he asks the skies: "What
do you want from us?" The answer is provided by a fellow-prisoner,
Nāzim Hikmet, one of the greatest poets of the 20th century,
then serving time for advocating Communism: truthful and
total engagement in art. Tragically, the judicial harassment
of writers is still prevalent in Turkey. And there is no
better testimony to the courage of these writers than
Kemal's memoir about his and Hikmet's time in prison, Three
and a Half Years with Nāzim Hikmet.
Not only does The Idle Years introduce the clarion voice of
a writer who, by virtue of his honesty and passion, inspired
others such as Orhan Pamuk, but it also provides a true
picture of a Turkey that still pursues the social changes
that make it such a vibrant, albeit troubled, country. If
Turkey succeeds in integrating with Europe by casting off
the oppressive elements in her otherwise proud heritage, it
will be through writers who will emulate Orhan Kemal's
wisdom and compassion.