Review: Portrait of a Turkish Family, Irfan Orga
By Melinda A. Reyes
Istanbul, draped languorously over small hills, cut through by the Bosphorus-with-jumping-dolphins, loosely bound by seas and small towns it will someday consume, resists most writers’ attempts at impartiality. It’s easiest to give in to the city’s self-mythologizing, hazy longing for an unspecified but not too distant past and tropes about bridges. Irfan Orga’s Portrait of a Turkish Family sidesteps Istanbul’s mystique by focusing on his family’s journey through a changing social landscape, and in the process gives us an honest portrait of his city during the tumultuous first decades of the 20th century.
Orga was born by the Marmara in 1908 to a wealthy merchant family. He starts Portrait with sun-drenched recollections of a privileged boyhood in the final days of Ottoman rule, occasional hints of late imperial instability tucked into the folds of more comforting childhood images: a stern grandfather, a beautiful mother, a patient father, a formidable grandmother who rules her social circle with arched eyebrows and judgmental glances. His family expands. His grandmother takes him to the hamam. Dinner parties are had. And then, overheard whispered conversations of the sort parents have always hidden from their children trouble the young boy: his first encounter of war and its rigors. Young Irfan reaches the age of reason, the first World War breaks out, and the vulnerability of his family and of the empire becomes rapidly clear to him as the two disintegrate in tandem. Enver Pasa’s dealmaking sees Irfan’s uncle, and then his father, pressed in to service, and those left behind slide into chaos.
Orga writes about his family’s ensuing dip into poverty with such detachment and regular doses of humor that it might be tempting to skim much of the book as nothing more than a pleasure read. It certainly ticks all the boxes of ideas, places, and feelings that are warm and familiar to people who have spent time along the Bosphorus: yalı mansions, Sariyer, fresh crusty bread, wide fruit carts navigating narrow streets. But Portrait never trips over nostalgia; for every vignette about neighborhood solidarity and gangs of roving children, there is a reminder of hunger at the door. We are never left to linger in Orga’s prewar seaside gardens or even the dank Beyazit rooms his family later rents long enough for us to feel comfortable romanticizing his past.
Instead, Orga directs our sense of awe towards the traditional extended family structures that would elude him for the remainder of his life, through two wars, a transient military career, and his forced expatriation to England. He unflinchingly captures how his family copes with their collapse, and how, after years of shared deprivation and emotional instability, choreographed performances of love and deference come to take the place of intimacy. He reserves his yearning not for his own family as it crumbles, but for the way families are allowed to exist in peacetime, untrammeled by conflict, famine, and fire.
Portrait’s value lies in its realist approach to the desperation of the era, and is successful both as a memorial to the people Orga loved and as a deeply personal polemic against geopolitical adventurism. His simultaneous attention to an imperfect Istanbul is an extra gift to readers, particularly those who are skeptical of the popular longing for Turkey’s imagined past, just out of reach by five years, or ten, or one hundred and ten, depending on who you ask. While the family life he once had is locked to us, and to him, as he moves through late childhood and adolescence, an astonishing number of the material experiences he describes have survived the advent of planes and the foundation of the republic. They’re now scattered, and one has the feeling that, given a car and an afternoon, it’s possible to gather them up and consume them all at once, jeweled lokum in a box, feeling as spoiled and slightly ill as five-year-old Orga might.
For his phaeton and wooden houses, Buyukada awaits. For his hamam trips, there are still baths that serve patrons serbet and dolma on white divans. His quiet cul-de-sac backing up to the sea is harder to find in central Istanbul, but the fig trees and lavender that grew there are still obstinately present in even the most crowded neighborhoods, tucked up against the south-facing walls of pre-fab apartment buildings and producing fruit that is as sweet. The street children, coal dust, struggling families displaced by violence, and threat of catastrophe are all here, too. Orga’s family has disappeared to war and to time; but Orga’s Istanbul hides, only half-obscured, in ours.
On the eve of his deployment abroad, he watches throngs of families sending their sons off and laments silently, a la Zweig, the political and military upheaval that has passed in front of him and permanently disrupted the proper order of his world. He offers up an invocation of his own absent family, some dead, all distant from him at that moment, and hands us the key to understanding what makes his writing so compelling: “We are the restless living, our names are not haloed by nostalgia.” The hagiographic brushstrokes common to memoirs of the time and to modern renderings of the late Ottoman and early Republican eras are startlingly absent from Portrait of a Turkish Family. He resists scrubbing his experiences and bathing them in sepia light, and so his writing remains fresh and relevant, and his city familiar, to contemporary readers experiencing a period of uncertainty one hundred years after he did.
Empires fall, people fail, the city continues to live.
A Portrait of a Turkish Family can be found here.
Melinda A. Reyes is a writer based in Istanbul and Washington, DC.