Cevdet Bey and His Sons: A Pamuk Novel in Hiding

By Merve Pehlivan


If you check out the back cover blurbs of any Orhan Pamuk novel in Turkish, you get generous praise from western publications, some of them primarily regional and therefore insignificant as the San Francisco Chronicle. It’s as though not a single word by a Turkish commentator is marketable enough to Turkish readers of the Nobel Laureate, except for his first novel Cevdet Bey ve Oğulları (Cevdet Bey and His Sons) published in 1982, strongly recommended by the acclaimed Turkish literary critic Fethi Naci. The reason looks simple. It is the only Pamuk novel not translated into English, due to what the author says is his “stubbornness” in the afterword to the 2010 edition.

Pamuk’s refusal to share this masterly first book with the Anglophone world is baffling. Cevdet Bey and His Sons is a cathedral of a novel with measured and meticulous prose, set in the backdrop of the last days of an empire and then the slow and troubled rise of a young republic, spanning three generations of a large family and their social connections. The first main character is Cevdet Bey, who later becomes “Cevdet Işıkçı” (lamp seller) with the adoption of the Surname Law in 1934. He is one of the earliest Muslim merchants in the twentieth-century Istanbul, an aspiring self-made man envisaging business and family “plans” (tasarı in Turkish is one of the most frequently used words in the novel by male protagonists). His nouveau-riche ambitions earn him a growing reputation in upper classes and a marriage with the daughter of a pasha. He seeks to buy a large house with a garden made by Armenian master-builders, recently vacated by a “madam,” a title given to Non-Muslim women in the Ottoman times. The house is in the heart of Nişantaşı where the now concrete jungle was then graced with linden and chestnut trees. 

The first few chapters of the novel take the reader on a delightful journey in a 1905 Istanbul where pharmacists sell Evian and Vittel bottles and Tobler chocolate bars. Sirkeci is a bustling commercial district just like today, but with a dominance of Christian merchants. (The outbreak of the WWI, the wealth tax designed to bankrupt non-Muslim tradesmen and the population exchange are still far away.) Alexandre Vallaury’s Serkldoryan (Cercle d’Orient) and Raimondo d’Aronco’s Botter buildings are alive and throbbing on İstiklal Street. 

The second part of the book starts with a few decades’ jump in time, where an ageing Cevdet Bey has already realised his “plans”, living in the Nişantaşı house with his wife Nigân Hanım, their children, their daughters-in-law and grandchildren. Born into wealth; Refik and Ayşe are quite oblivious to their father’s hard work, resolve and business opportunism that guarantees them a life of privilege. Osman is the only child that Cevdet Bey can trust his company with. The narrative develops into a tripartite portrayal of male idealism in a Turkey where Atatürk is on his deathbed. Ömer, a self-absorbed, overconfident young fellow with a degree from England repeatedly calls himself a “conqueror” and wants to make a lot of money in a railroad construction project in the eastern province of Erzincan. Muhittin, who vows to commit suicide if he cannot become an accomplished poet by age thirty, gives up on poetry to dedicate himself to the nationalist cause. Refik, Cevdet Bey’s son and the only married one among three friends from engineering school, gets restless with a lack of purpose and the tedium of conjugal life. He spends a few months with Ömer in Kemah, Erzincan, and begins to write a book on “plans for villages.” The omniscient narrator of the novel gives substantial emphasis on the meandering course of these young men’s aspirations, without herocizing them or glorifying their motivations.

In Cevdet Bey and His Sons, Pamuk writes about a world he is intimately familiar with. He is the grandchild of a rich engineer like Ömer and grew up in Nişantaşı with a big family like the Işıkçı clan. In dialogues and interior monologues, he doesn’t fumble like he later does with other novels. (in Snow, an Islamist youth says Ulu Allah. No Turkish Muslim would use such a dry Turkic word to describe Allah.) After a disappointing shopping stroll up İstiklal Street, women repeatedly complain about how “There is nothing in Beyoğlu!” Exclamation marks abound throughout the novel, as though the characters are always a bit shouting or giving a theatrical cadence to their voice. Like the tableaux vivants of the rich in Oblomov, life in the Işıkçı house carries on in predictable, unperturbed cycles of weddings, childbirths and funerals. In one scene particularly comparable to Oblomov; Cevdet Bey’s full-bellied drowsiness in a bayram afternoon is described with minute and comical detail. In another scene, Perihan gives her husband Refik a full account of what she did throughout the day: Making the bed, feeling bored for a while, wondering if she would make a phone call but doesn’t fancy talking to anybody, going out for a walk in Topağacı with her mother-in-law, not finding anything in Beyoğlu. These trivia serve a crucial narrative aim. Sometime after listening to what happened on a day in the life of his wife, Refik ends up leaving home for Kemah.

The insider’s perspective creates effortless humour in the novel. At the very beginning, Cevdet Bey stares at the sign in front of his shop that says: “Cevdet Bey and His Sons - Imports, Exports, Hardware.” The narrator adds: “He had not yet started an exports business, he did not have sons either, but he had intentions for both.” There are scenes in which Refik writes in a journal. The immediacy of the first person narration brings the reader closest to the character, exposing his weaknesses and absurd thoughts. 

In one scene, the dramatic interior monologue of a failed poet is interrupted by the following lines:

“Hey! Look at that child!’ said Perihan.

They all turned and looked.”

And that’s the end of a chapter. If literature, in one sense or another, is the art of choosing what to tell and what to hide from the reader, Orhan Pamuk strikes that fine balance in this book, leaving you with a pleasurable aftertaste of reading a well-crafted work of fiction.

That being said, the novel is not without its inadequacies. The language sometimes verges on the dry with a few vocabulary glitches. Pamuk says in the afterword that his aim was to illustrate not just a single family, but an entire society. This aim is not fulfilled. The underprivileged are nothing but silhouettes in the novel. They are servants, gardeners, or warehouse workers of Cevdet Bey “smelling of tobacco and sweat.” We know about their lives only through short, conceited reports by their employers. Another shortcoming is that almost every female character lacks intellectual depth; dreaming of nothing but marriage, furniture and china cups. In contrast with long and profound conversations between various men, women’s thoughts on a westernising Turkey remain shallow. Ample attention is given to what goes on in the mind of a relatively minor character, Ömer’s future father-in-law, while more central, recurring female figures are given voice very briefly. The portrayals of women are mostly shaped by the accounts of men that surround them.


In his Nobel Lecture “My Father’s Suitcase,” Orhan Pamuk talks about how, after reading a typewritten copy of his first novel, his father told him that one day he would win the Nobel prize. He adds: “He said this not because he was trying to convince me of his good opinion or to set the prize as a goal; he said it like a Turkish father, supporting his son, encouraging him by saying, “One day you’ll be a pasha!” Cevdet Bey and His Sons is available in all Romance languages in Europe, plus Dutch, German and Polish. It’s mysteriously absent in English, the language that gave and sustains the international acclaim of the writer. One is left to wonder if, keeping his first novel to a limited reader base compared to every other novel he’s written so far, Pamuk doesn’t trust his late father’s opinion. 



Merve is  a translator and interpreter based in Istanbul. She writes short stories. She is also the founder and host of Spoken Word Istanbul. You can find out about Spoken Word here