danthonyblog.wordpress.com - Book Reviews - 29 Jan 2011


The Idle Years

The Idle Years
By Orhan Kemal
Trans. Cengiz Lugal
Peter Owen Publishers
223 pp.

The Idle Years is Orhan Kemal’s largely autobiographical story of a wealthy Turkish family forced into exile on account of the father’s politics. The family, husband and wife with their two sons and two daughters, moves to Beirut and there falls into extreme poverty. This is a bleak book about the common man’s struggle to keep himself afloat in a world that cares little for his fate, about people without enough money for decent clothing and children looking on helplessly as their mother dies of some treatable disease. This is the world of the down-and-out in all their wretchedness: its pages are full of teenage prostitutes, empty stomachs, nighttime soccer matches, class snobbery and evil factory managers.

The novel is written in the first-person, the narrator being the family’s youngest son. He begins by recounting the pleasantries of his early childhood in Adana, a city in southern Turkey, which included being caned by his father and locked up in a room under the stairway for days on end with nothing but a Koran. The boy’s life is one difficulty after another, and at one point he attempts to take his frustrations out on the family cat by drowning it at a nearby fountain. He then accompanies his family to Beirut where he works briefly at a printing press, but returns to Adana alone a short time later to live with his grandmother and continue his schooling. In reality he does everything but go to school, instead spending his days in the company of other young men causing trouble in restaurants, trying various stints in manual labor, and of course playing soccer, but always ‘stuffing their faces one day, starving the next.’

This is a book without any clear political message, though no one could read it without seeing clearly that it is a political book. Its focus is class, and the snobbery and blindness that always accompany class feeling. The author knows that for the most part there is little difference between the rich man and the poor man besides the amount of money each has inherited: the lower class children with whom the narrator plays do not have the same manners as he does, but they are just as bright, if not brighter, than the more well-off children. At the same time, a member of the upper class who has fallen on hard times cannot simply adopt the life of a worker willy-nilly, since he is inevitably caught in an upper class mentality that includes, for example, a manual labor fetish and the need to keep up appearances at all costs.

This is something that can only be shrugged with a great deal of effort, and the narrator of The Idle Years is in the end unable to do it. The lives of working people are not to be taken up and put on like a pair of pants: by the end of the novel, the narrator’s hands are still ‘soft’ and his body will not endure the task of a full day shoveling gravel.