Orhan Kemal (1914-1970), a poet, novelist, playwright and master of short stories, is an "immortal of Turkish literature", a soubriquet bestowed on him long before his death. The Idle Years comprises the first two volumes of a four-volume autobiographical work, which he designated as the "diaries of a nobody".
These two volumes recount his early years in the 1920s and 1930s; first in Adana, where he was born, then exile and impoverishment in Beirut, where his father, a lawyer and erstwhile member of the nascent Turkish parliament, had to escape with his family for daring form an opposition party. The latter part of the book relates Kemal's repatriation, his failure to find employment in Istanbul, and his return to Adana, to a humble job and marriage.
Both volumes provide ample evidence of Kemal's love and compassion for everyman, particularly poor "nobodies" for whom the acquisition of daily bread demanded Herculean labours. The vigour of his prose and his unswerving integrity in portraying starving children, oppressed women, the plight of factory, farm and migrant workers, the lives of prisoners and the love and friendship of the disadvantaged, deliver a trenchant voice for the voiceless.
The gifts of his youth blossomed when Kemal, like many Turkish writers before him, was imprisoned, in 1939, for his socialist views. In The Idle Years, he asks the skies: "What do you want from us?" The answer is provided by a fellow-prisoner, Nâzim Hikmet, one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, then serving time for advocating Communism: truthful and total engagement in art. Tragically, the judicial harassment of writers is still prevalent in Turkey. And there is no better testimony to the courage of these writers than Kemal's memoir about his and Hikmet's time in prison, Three and a Half Years with Nâzim Hikmet.
Not only does The Idle Years introduce the clarion voice of a writer who, by virtue of his honesty and passion, inspired others such as Orhan Pamuk, but it also provides a true picture of a Turkey that still pursues the social changes that make it such a vibrant, albeit troubled, country. If Turkey succeeds in integrating with Europe by casting off the oppressive elements in her otherwise proud heritage, it will be through writers who will emulate Orhan Kemal's wisdom and compassion.
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