Bilkent University - Journal of Turkish Literature - Moris Farhi - March 2010



Orhan Kemal, poet, novelist, playwright and master of short stories, is the pen name of Mehmet Raþit Öðütçü (1914-1970). Today, he is lovingly known as an “immortal of Turkish literature”, a soubriquet that was bestowed on him, deservedly, long before his untimely death.

Sadly, as is the case with many Turkish writers of international stature, he has been woefully ignored in the West, particularly by Anglophone publishers. Although, recently, in 2008, the first two volumes of his four-volume autobiographical novels, was published in the U.K. by Peter Owen, under the title, The Idle Years, this reader, for one, feels that this solitary tome proffers merely a token recognition of his rightful place in the constellations of world literature.

Kemal’s vast body of work not only provides deep insights into the complexity of the Turkish spirit – a spirit that evolved during centuries of coadunation between diverse peoples and cultures – but also through a profound understanding of the generic aspects of human nature. A beautiful passage in Cemile, the third volume of his autobiographical novels, written when Kemal was still quite young, epitomizes perfectly the universal vision that permeates his oeuvre. This is how he describes the nostalgic overtones an immigrant from Bosnia of Turkish descent exudes as he sings an old folk ballad: “The song had the full range of colours of an ornate kilim. It had longing, it had desire, and it had love… All the motifs one would find from India to China, from Casablanca to New York, from the Po Valley to the South American steppes, and indeed in Anatolia. It was a complex tapestry of mankind’s longing and desires.[1]

Since he designated his autobiographical novels as the “diaries of a nobody” and since he always exudes love and compassion for the impecunious “everyman” for whom the acquisition of daily bread imposes Herculean labours, we can be permitted to sum up Kemal’s genius as “the chronicler of nobodies”.

But, of course, the hidden truth beneath that summation – a truth which Kemal knew in his bones - is that nobody is a nobody; everybody is somebody; and somebody as exceptional, as meritorious of his or her birthright, as those purported to be of notable lineage or status. The inequalities that govern our societies do not lie in the mysteries by which chance determines the provenance of a person his/her race, faith or bloodline, but in the ambitions of those whom Wilhelm Reich called “the armoured men”.

Kemal astutely espies these multitudinous “armoured men”. He sees the way their lust for power, their craving for material gains, their obsession for unlimited privileges drive them to self-appoint themselves as an “elite” with god-given rights to leadership. He sees the way they form unconscionable cabals and the way they array themselves in the ostentatious garbs of politics, the military, religion and finance.

It is in defiance of such a rapacious and supremacy-mad establishment that Kemal, stands up, to paraphrase Pablo Neruda, as the singer who sings “for those who do not have a voice”. Indeed, the vigour of his inimitable prose, the unswerving integrity with which he portrays, in stark realism, starving children, oppressed women, the plights of factory, farm and migrant workers, the lives of prisoners and the love, friendship and solidarity of the underprivileged, deliver an unequivocal voice for those crushed into hopeless silence.

The two volumes comprising The Idle Years recount Kemal’s journey to maturation in the 1920s and 1930s; starting with his life in Adana, where he was born, then living in exile and impoverishment in Beirut where his father, Abdülkadir Kemali Bey, a lawyer and erstwhile member of the nascent Turkish parliament, had to escape with his family for having dared form an opposition party. The latter part relates Kemal’s repatriation, his failure to find employment in Istanbul, and, finally, his return to Adana, to a humble job and the prospect of betrothal.  

Though both volumes are early works, they amply exhibit Kemal’s humanity and compassion. His allegiance with the downtrodden is even more forceful in the following two autobiographical novels, Cemile and Dünya Evi. The former, relating his endeavours to marry an immigrant young Bosnian deemed to be of inferior stock, not only condemns the prevalent prejudices of traditional class structures – perhaps even more prominent in rural areas than in metropolises - but also exposes the ferocity unleashed by unprincipled entrepreneurs in their pursuit of wealth.

The fourth volume, Dünya Evi - still to be translated into English – recounts his frustrations in an uninspiring employment which not only alienates him from his fellow-workers but also leads him to be dismissed from his job, a misfortune which also provokes separation from his wife. The fulminating passion of this novel serves as a poignant paean for the countless men and women of our times who are thrown into robotized industrial labyrinths in the name of “progress” and “development”. But, as in all of Kemal’s works, no matter how severe the hardships, there are always embers of hope. And, as he constantly reminds us, it is love that invariably keeps hope burning brightly. Consequently, it is love that triumphs in Dünya Evi and reunites the rueful protagonist with his wife.

Significantly, the budding gifts of the young Kemal blossomed when he, like many Turkish writers before him, was imprisoned, in 1938, for pronouncing socialist views. It is often proclaimed in Turkey where incarceration and judicial harassment of writers is still prevalent to this day, that time spent in jail by a writer not only affirms his literary stature but also evolves his gifts by providing him with the profound experiences requisite for any great artist. (Not surprisingly, the same rubric is also expressed in numerous other countries where their respective governments insidiously suppress freedom of expression.)

In The Idle Years the young Kemal asks the skies: “What do you want from us?” He receives the answer, a few years later, in Bursa Prison, from none other than Nâzým Hikmet, Turkey’s supreme poet and one of the literary giants of the 20th century. Fate, for once compassionate, contrives to transfer, in December 1940, the already legendary Hikmet to the very prison where Kemal is serving a five-year term. This quirk of history, despite the abiding misery confinement inflicts on both geniuses, proves a boon for them. It blesses Hikmet, sentenced to a long – in Hikmet’s mind, interminable – confinement for advocating Communism, with the constancy of a kindred spirit; and, with Hikmet, having immediately recognized his young companion’s narrative gifts, it bestows upon Kemal the spiritual guidance and disquisitive mentorship that sets him on course for the pinnacles of Turkish literature. Kemal reverently admits that Hikmet’s panoptic advice on the essence of art - simply that art must always harness itself to absolute truthfulness and that in order to achieve that cohesion the artist must commit himself to total engagement with his art - has been the pellucid beacon throughout his life.  

Apart from Nâzým Hikmet’s own letters and poems from prison, there is no better testimony to the courage of dissident patriots, and not least, to those champions of human rights and freedom of expression, than Kemal’s memoir, In Jail with Nâzým Hikmet. This book has now been beautifully translated into English by Bengisu Rona, the Professor of Turkish language and literature at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and published by Anatolia Publishing with an international edition planned for 2010. It will provide the Anglophone readership a cause for celebration.

I should like to offer a special mention for In Jail with Nâzým Hikmet.

It depicts, devotedly, the solidarity that, with only a few exceptions, grows between prisoners and bonds them so strongly as to make custody almost bearable. By exploring this stoic comradeship, Kemal highlights one of the great virtues of humankind, particularly evident in Turkey, which impels communities to lend to one another all possible support when calamity strikes.

Just as interestingly, Kemal’s memoir depicts the prisons of his times as institutions that were incomparably more humane to their inmates – particularly to writers and dissidents - than those of today where the disintegration of the soul through isolation, dehumanization and brutality – and, indeed, torture – have become standard practice. The present iniquities in prison conditions – many governments dissemble the changes with the misnomer “modernization” -  should make us reflect, as indubitably Kemal expects, that the sacrifice of human rights and values at the altar of expediency should never be allowed and are, in any case, contrary to the ethos of progress and social development.

Kemal’s insight also casts light on the bitter conflicts engendered by rigid, muddled dogmas. For the discerning reader this dimension is omnipresent between the lines of almost all of Kemal’s works. The period when Kemal and Hikmet spent in Bursa prison was a time when the armies of Nazi Germany were rampaging across Europe. Although Hitler’s ideology of a thousand-year Reich under the rule of a super race was deemed, by most of the free world, as the flotsam of a demented mind, it had found support in various reactionary circles. Similar approval was to be found in Turkey also, mostly from hardliners who, still clinging to their imperial mentality, still mourning the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and, therefore, mistrustful of reforms, saw National Socialism as a panacea. By conflating Stalin’s Communism – as ruthless and brutal as Nazism – these obscurantists remorselessly and self-righteously dismissed the original and humane aspects of Socialism. (Socialism, advocating universal wealth-sharing and equality for every individual, was, as readers well know, the utopian rule for humankind that both Kemal and Hikmet championed throughout their lives.) In In Jail with Nâzým Hikmet, Kemal relates the unforgiving factionalism that these alignments produced by depicting, in microcosm, the equivalent divisions between the prisoners. This account provides a reflection into the great divide that bludgeoned the fledgling Turkish republic and only barely kept the country out of the Second World War until all but the end of it. More importantly, it should serve as a condemnation of the fanaticism that present-day racist, political, religious and nationalist ideologies sanctimoniously nurture. Today both Kemal’s and Hikmet’s conviction holds truer than ever: patriotism does not lie in the hysteria of nationalism or religion or racism but in our compassion and humanity not only for our fellow-citizens but also – and not least - for those whom the family of man, for perverse reasons, has chosen to ostracize as “the other”.     

Orhan Kemal’s work should command the attention of all lovers of literature. The honesty and passion that gives resonance to his clarion voice should exhort us all. And to Turks, in particular, especially to those still labouring to bring about the social changes our secular charter demands, his works should be standard texts. Then they will see that the strength and natural goodness of the Turkish spirit, so truthfully caught by Kemal, can outweigh, and thus thwart, the re-emergence of the oppressive elements in Turkey’s otherwise magnificent heritage.



1829 words


[1] Gemile, Anatolia Publishing; translated by Cengiz Lugal.