A Portrait of a Turkish Family, a memoir by Irfan Orga

Some of the best books I’ve found have turned up in library discard sales: there’s a cart of these near the front door of most of the libraries in my area. For a dollar or two you can buy whatever the library has decided no longer belongs on its shelves. How-To books, children’s books, thrillers and mysteries predominate: but there are occasional gems.

I don’t know how A Portrait of a Turkish Family ended up in the bin at the Bruce Hutchison library—it hadn’t come from the stacks, so was likely a gift from a Library Friend. Tucked inside it was a flyer from the English language Turkish Daily News, and there’s a Turkish lira price sticker on the back. My edition is a reprint (Eland Publishing, London, 2004) of the original 1950 Gollancz publication. The front cover quote, from Robert Fox(The Daily Telegraph) sums it up: ‘This book is a little masterpiece.’

Irfan Orga’s memoir, set in Istanbul, begins with his birth in 1908 into a prosperous and cultured family and ends with the death of his mother in 1940. In many ways, the story is his mother’s: her struggle to raise her children through a series of tragedies which starts with the death of her husband, Irfan’s father, along with hundreds of thousands of other Turkish men, in the First World War all the way to—well, I won’t explain what happens : but the family’s story reveals the impact of national and global social and political events on the most intimate details of their lives and relationships as seen through the eyes of an alert, articulate and desperate boy. Irfan’s ability to draw character, evoke place is astonishing: the writing, on every page, is clear and beautiful. Some of the scenes—the grandmother’s visit to the Hamam; the young Irfan’s circumcision, are very funny; and others of poverty and cruelty and despair are so painful that I’m loathe to remember them. Over all circles Irfan’s determination to be honest in his portrayal, to do so with general sensitivity but unsparingly of himself. His tone and accomplishment make me think of a concert violinist and the depth and meaning it is possible to convey through sound: this book resonates.

There’s no point in my sounding like a puff piece: so I’ll quote a paragraph to give the flavour. What I can’t do—and what makes this a slow book read—is to convey the reach and range of the book: it’s grasp of the story of a country, a people, and a family as they undergo profound change (remember this is the period of the end of Ottoman culture and of Turkey’s westernization) makes this a reading experience during which you want to pause and rest and reflect on your own experiences and ideas, and to consider how they are altered through the lens of Irfan Orga’s account.

With apologies for being unable to write the Turkish names with correct orthography:

“When the summer of that year was upon us we did not even have dry bread in the school and the old women used to take us to a place called Fenerbahce, where grew many big sakiz-agaci (gum trees), where the small red, resinous berries grew in thick clusters. We used to throw stones into the trees, sometimes being lucky enough to knock down the berries into the long, wild grass. These we would scramble madly for, knocking each other down to find the berries to eat them avidly, like little animals. They had a sour taste but were curiously satisfying and we used to fill our pockets, taking them back with us to the school to eat during the night. At other times we would go to Fikir Tepesi, where we would pull and eat kuzu-kulagi (sorrel), helping the younger amongst us to choose the right grasses. We would search at Kalamis for bayir-trupu (small white radishes), which gave us a raking thirst. And many times I remember eating the almond-blossom from the trees, stuffing the blooms into my ever-hungry mouth. Once in a sea field, bounding one side of our gardens, soldiers were pulling broad beans and throwing the green stalks to the edge of the field, the edge nearest our palings. We put our fingers through and took the stalks, sucking them afterwards with great relish.”

Descriptive passages, such as this, are anchored in event and character and in the matter-of-factness with which a child copes with circumstance. “It became the custom amongst us to carry salt and red pepper in little bags concealed about our person and if we were ever lucky enough to find potato peelings or raw aubergine skins, we would wash them at the pump, expertly mix them with the contents of our little bags and eat them when we were desperate with hunger.”

If ever the thought drifts through your mind that people create their own destinies and it is lack of courage or intelligence or both that govern ‘success’ this book should put an end to it. Irfan Orga’s work reminds me, in its combination of scale and particularity of Tolstoy, and in the acuteness of his eye of Laurie Lee. This book is a great legacy.