Novels can be a source of comfort and sustenance not only to their readers, but to their writers too. This idea seems especially true for writers working in an autobiographical mode, mining their own pasts, watching the spectres of people pass by, reliving the heady moments of youth, thinking about roads taken and others left behind.
These are the thoughts occasioned by the reading of The Idle Years, a novel first published in two parts in 1949 and 1950 by the great Turkish writer, Orhan Kemal, often referred to in the English-speaking world as the Turkish Dickens, and now newly and strikingly translated by Cengiz Luhal. Although it is sometimes a mistake to link a writer’s books too closely to his autobiography, it would seem that The Idle Years calls out for such a reading.
The Idle Years: Peter Owen,224 pages, £11.95 (around Rs950).
The unnamed narrator of the book is the son of a charismatic and authoritarian political agitator who is sent into exile with his family after falling foul of the Turkish regime. Brought up in a large house with many servants and all the comforts of life, the protagonist is suddenly pitchforked into an unsettling world in which the family is always on the move, money is scarce, and the father’s temper thunderous. He is forced to do menial jobs, and begins to keep the company of a set whom he had previously seen only from afar and with no consideration of their miseries: workers, vagabonds and prostitutes. He is constantly hungry, and when granted a good meal through luck, comradeship or charity, not only eats ravenously but also remembers every dish and every helping for days. He is often consumed by despair and by shame, and, most of all, loathes the heavy hand and bellowing voice of his father.
This story more broadly follows the contours of Kemal’s own youth, and it might be seen as part of that current in literature in which writers mull over the weight placed on their lives, in both good and bad ways, by their fathers: the early novels and later autobiographical meditations of V.S. Naipaul, for instance, or even the essays of Kemal’s famous countryman Orhan Pamuk (who has written a short, admiring foreword for this book). Indeed, the first part of The Idle Years is called My Father’s House, and its closing movement is one in which the protagonist resolves to leave that house and returns from Beirut to his homeland to strike out on his own. In one of the novel’s best passages, the narrator returns to his hometown, Adana, hot with stories of his itinerant life to tell his childhood friends, only to find that nothing is as it used to be: The place that the mind thinks of as home is not as stable as it imagined it to be.
Kemal’s novel beautifully evokes the world-changing ardour and angst of youth, the consolations of friendship, the aches and burns of love, and the redemption of constant misery and hardship by small acts of kindness or brief interludes of escape. Many of his characters are great talkers, but they talk in a stop-start fashion, stumbling from one subject to another, or revealing some acute particularity of their character.
Old world: Much of what Kemal says about Turkey is relevant today.
The book ends with a scene in which the protagonist, still impoverished, marries his beloved wearing a borrowed suit, shoes and tie. The newly-weds are excited by the beautiful gifts that they have been given, and begin to construct a castle of dreams upon them, only to find that the groom’s grandmother borrowed them all from family and friends to make the wedding look good, and that the goods must now all be returned.
This episode is symbolic of the whole story, in which hope and yearning are trying to break free of the chains of reality, and disappointment is quickly forgotten. The last line of the novel—“So we carried on with our lives, appreciating all that we had”—seems both an observation of fact and a piece of friendly advice to the reader.
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