Roberta Micallef - Review - 22 November 2011


Idle Years review


Here is a review for Orhan Kemal's The Idle Years which has just appeared in the Review of Middle Eastern Studies.

MESA ROMES 43 l 2009


Orhan Kemal. The Idle Years. London: Peter Owen Publishers, 2008. 223 pages. Paper EUK11.95 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 multi-layered 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 Rasit Ogiitcii 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 Yedigiin under the name of Rasit 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 Nazim 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 (Kardes Payi) and Bread First (Once Ekmek). Bread First also won The Turkish Language Institute Short Story award. He adapted