“Portrait of a Turkish Family” by Irfan Orga

This article is also available in: Italiano

“Portrait of a Turkish Family” is one of the masterpieces of contemporary Turkish literature, able to make us relive the whole epic of the Orga, which began shortly before the First World War

Portrait of a Turkish Family

Autobiography that goes from 1913 to 1940, the book traces the family and social life of an upper class family that with the Great War and the fall of the Ottoman Empire lost the economic and social privileges of its position until it was reduced to a state of extreme poverty, and up to its tiring ascent towards an acceptable standard of living. The protagonists of this story, in addition to the writer’s family, are Istanbul itself and all the varied society of notables, petty bourgeois and commoners who live there, so that the book presents various levels of reading ranging from the private story of the protagonist – with pages on childhood that are among the most beautiful in twentieth-century literature – to the culture and customs of a country that has always been a bridge between East and West in a crucial period of its history: from the fall of the Sultan and the Ottoman Empire to Kemal Ataturk’s revolution.

Family fresco

The book brings us to fully relive the events of the Orga family, which went from having several servants to having to feed on dry bread and broth in order not to die of hunger in a period and in a context that is very little known in Italy. In fact, more and more texts shed light on what the consequences of the Sevres Treaty were, but few are able to show us what happened to the population of Istanbul, a city that had to completely reinvent itself after the First World War. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire, in fact, a large part of the Turkish population found themselves having to start their history completely from scratch and this, especially for those who had a lot to lose, was truly devastating. Specifically, the Orga family lost almost everything in a very short time, being forced to move and then being able to rely only on the cunning of the grandmother and the industriousness of the mother, who in a moment passed from worrying only about beauty, parties and jewels, having to sew the soldiers’ underpants in the hope of grabbing a piece of fresh bread for the family.

Portrait of a Turkish Family
From left to right: Irfan, the mother, Muazzez, the grandmother and Mehmet

Irfan and his brother Mehmet then enrolled in the military academy, the first becoming a fighter pilot and the second an army doctor. The book, at least as far as the author is concerned, would have ended with the death of his mother, but his son, Ateş Orga, in a large afterword will give us the tools to understand his father even better, telling us what then happened to Irfan . The latter in fact went to England and there he fell madly in love with a Norman-Irish girl with whom he fathered he had Ateş and with whom he married in 1948. This union, however, forced him to leave Turkey forever, coming forced to a life as an exile between Ireland and the United Kingdom. The words of his son will thus give us the opportunity to fully observe the life of this man, helping us to understand one of the most important generations in Turkish history.

Absolute masterpiece

The book turned out to be one of my most successful purchases of the year, putting in front of me a text capable of both enchanting and enriching in terms of historical knowledge and awareness. In fact, thanks to the simple but elegant narrative style, the reader will be put in the best possible conditions to enjoy both the plot and the context, thus being able to read a very pleasant novel and at the same time gain some more knowledge. Of course the story is not the happiest ever, but, as in the book “The Wind from the Plain” by Yashar Kemal, pain and fatigue are overcome with extreme attitude and grace which, in addition to telling us something about the two authors, reflects that particular pride in the face of typically Turkish difficulties.

Portrait of a Turkish Family

The text is without a shadow of a doubt one of the masterpieces of contemporary Turkish literature and is an essential purchase for true lovers of this people and, specifically, of the city of Istanbul, represented here in the very last days of the Ottoman Empire.

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