Orhan Kemal would not be one of the widely known names of Turkish literature in the West, unlike his semi name-share, Orhan Pamuk, or even Yashar Kemal. He is the author of 28 novels and many short stories, most often dealing with the lives of the working poor in Turkey in the 1920s to the 1960s.
The Idle Years, 1950, translated by Cengiz Lugal, is one of his earliest, and a good introduction to his themes and style. Using parts of Kemal’s own life, the unnamed narrator is a very poor young man in the port city of Adana, where Turkey turns from east-west to north-south, continuing on to Syria and Lebanon. Unhappy in high school he and two friends take a 5 day boat trip to the great city of Istanbul, hoping to find work and to experience the world. The extremes of poverty he suffers, and descriptions of his parent’s poverty in Jerusalem where the father is in exile for political activities in Turkey, rival George Orwell’s well known Down and Out in Paris and London.
Giving up and returning, as much from lack of direction and ambition as actual lack of work, he returns ot Adana where he falls in love, from a simple sighting, with an immigrant factory girl. The courtship consists of following her home and standing outside her door. By the time she notices, everyone in the neighborhood has also. Death threats begin. The girl is interested, purely on seeing from her window and his proven interest in her. She gets word to him that his family must come to her father and ask for her hand. When he asks his grandmother to speak for him, she is appalled. The girl is only a factory worker. She may have slept with thousands of men already! And he comes from an important family!
The narrator prevails through a lucky encounter with a friend who had a great influence on him earlier and had then disappeared but who turns out to be a close friend of the girl’s father. The wedding takes place and as if by a miracle gifts apear from his own family: gold, pendants, bracelets, carpets. The young couple is delerious and plan a wealthy life together until the grandmother appears and tells them everything has been borrowed — to put on a good face– and must be returned.
The novel ends as they realize they have nothing but each other, and that is enough.
The Idle Years is a short novel of only 135 pages and has none of the complexity or mystery or tension building familiar in most modern fiction. Aside from some very revealing passages of self-doubt by the narrator there is not much character development. But for a look into the working lives, and risks of the time and place — one man is severely injured by a flying shuttle in a weaving factory; the apprentice work is unpaid labor– this is a fine novel, and worth adding to the short list of interesting writing about the lives of other than the middle classes.
The biographical note tells us that Kemal ”…went on to explore … the problems of farm and factory workers, the alientation of migrant workers in the big cities, the lives of prison inmates, blind devotion to duty, child poverty and the exploitation and repression of women.”
An author for anyone interested in Turkey and the generations that helped build the current one, or the working poor anywhere in the world. I’ll be reading more of him.