MESA - Roberta Micallef - November 2009


ORHAN KEMAL. The Idle Years

ORHAN KEMAL. The Idle Years. London: Peter Owen Publishers, 2008. 223 pages.
Paper £UK11.95 ISBN 978-0-7206-1310-0.

The Idle Years is a realistic novel set in the 1920s and 1930s that masterfully
portrays the struggles of a once well-respected, financially comfortable
family caught up in the upheaval of the early decades of the Republic of
Turkey. The first two of Orhan Kemal’s semi-autobiographical tetralogy My
Father’s House (Baba Evi, 1949) and Idle Years (Avare Yillar, 1950) comprise
this poignant work. Kemal, a giant of the Turkish short story and novel, is
well known for his realistic and compassionate portrayal of the impoverished.
In this highly accessible work Kemal’s true to life portrayals allows
the reader a rare male perspective of the internal dynamics of a Turkish
household. Kemal presents his complex cast of characters—the inhabitants
of the poverty stricken neighborhoods, his friends and family—as multilayered
individuals acting and reacting as actors caught in a complex network
some of which overlap and some of which do not overlap.
At first glance, the subject matter of this novel appears terribly depressing.
The narrator, the son of a well to do household, finds his education and
his life interrupted when his family suddenly flees to Beirut, where they are
faced with daily struggle against poverty and hunger. It is not merely this
family that is suffering but entire neighborhoods. The author’s attempts
to escape poverty take him back to Adana and then to Istanbul and finally
back to Adana again. Throughout his travels, he creates vibrant portraits
of the poor, hungry people by whom he is surrounded. However, The Idle
Years is far from depressing. Narrated with a great deal of empathy and a
sense of humor suffused with minor gestures of unexpected kindness, this
work captures many of the author’s own experiences.
Orhan Kemal was born Mehmet Raşit Öğütçü in 1914 in Adana. His father
was a lawyer who was the MP from Kastamonu in the first Turkish national
parliament. Due to his father’s political activism, the entire family had to
flee to Syria. Kemal returned to Adana in 1932 and held a variety of menial
jobs. He started his literary career as a poet. Kemal published his first poem
Yedigün under the name of Raşit Kemal (Duvarlar 25 04 1939). While doing
his military service in 1939 he was sentenced to five years in prison for his
political opinions. His time in prison was pivotal in his development as an
artist. Here he met the great Turkish poet Nazım Hikmet. Hikmet tutored
him and influenced him but perhaps also intimidated him. He decided to
focus on prose. He won the highly esteemed Sait Faik award twice with his
books Equal Sharing (Kardeş Payı) and Bread First (Önce Ekmek). Bread First
also won The Turkish Language Institute Short Story award. He adapted some of his novels, such as Ward 72, Murtaza, and The Junk Shop, for the
theatre. Kemal was chosen as the playwright of the year by the Ankara
Institute of Art in 1967 for his play Ward 72.
Mr. Lugan’s translation of The Idle Years is very readable. Orhan Kemal is
well known for his simple but beautiful prose, and Mr. Lugan’s translation
reflects Kemal’s style. The translator has not only translated the content
but also rendered his translation into a book that is a pleasure to read. This
book should find many constituents, such as readers interested in the early
years of the Turkish Republic, readers interested in the issues of modernization,
urbanizations in a rapidly industrializing society and those simply
interested in a well-written book about a different segment of society from
a different part of the world should find this book worth their time. This
reviewer can only hope that Cemile and Dunya Evi, the other two parts of
the tetralogy will also be made available soon.
Roberta Micallef
Boston University