Why you Should read: Cemile, Orhan Kemal
By Luke Frostick
The mass of houses seemed to have been washed up in a giant flood, a flood that had started far away, washing away everything in its path, foaming and swirling and bringing everything up to the walls of the factory, to the beating heart of the neighbourhood.
As a ghastly preening Cihangir person, I have been aware of Orhan Kemal for along time. I’ve walked past signs for his museum many times, while sipping 20TL lattes, scouting for artisanal breakfast, complaining about Taksim and other, you know, ghastly Cihangir stuff. However, I finally got round to reading his short book Cemile and really enjoyed it.
The story focuses on a family of Bosnian immigrants escaping violence in the Balkans to the Çukurova, working in a cotton factory there to make a meagre living. The father spends his time at home pulling teeth and giving haircuts to the other poor workers at the factory, while his son Sadri and daughter Cemile work punishing hours in the factory for low pay. The book opens with the rumour that Cemile has fallen for a young clerk in the factory and the gossip-mongers are watching, will he send his family round to speak to his father or not, can he afford to get married on thirty lira a month. However, Cemile might be in more danger than she realises, as jealous older men conspire to kidnap her and force her into marriage. At the same time, trouble is brewing in the factory. The threads in the spinning machines keep breaking, slowing work down and endangering everybody’s pay checks. The workers, egged on by the foremen and overseers blame it on the new Italian engineer and his modern machines, but others suggest that it is the foremen themselves who are sabotaging production to force the Italian out. Tension is building and the consequences for Cemile, Sadri, the Italian, and all the other cotton workers could be fatal.
Like quite a lot of older Turkish literature is it has a kind of Russian feel in the way that it zooms from the characters at the very top of the tree, the factory owners to the workers at the bottom, the foremen in between and the camel men, and shop keepers watching from the sidelines. He uses naturalistic dialog to build these characters, their world and the narrative simultaneously. It is impressive that in quite a slender volume all these different characters feel well rounded, even the villains have virtues and the heroes flaws. That all these characters have a role to play in the story’s central arc without it becoming over-cluttered and confusing is a real achievement.
The book is politically aware to a razor-sharp degree in a similar way to Yaşar Kemal. However, while Yaşar Kemal tends to talk about the rural communities, Orhan Kemal focuses on the urban in this book. They both use fiction to bring to life marginalised groups in the early Turkish republic. Orhan makes real the lives of these incredibly poor, exploited factory workers who damage their bodies doing hard labour for long hours, but still live in poverty, and with the risk of a missed pay day ruining them. It also brings up the issue of women’s rights, the world where Cemile lives is one where being kidnaped and forced to marry wealthy men is a dangerous reality, the consequences of that for her could be being found dead on a mountain side while for the men a few months in prison, where she can’t trust that a friendly invitation from other factory women isn’t in fact a trap. She is put in the position where getting married to the clerk is literally a life or death matter for her.
The prose throughout the book is has verbiage finds the humour and the beauty in the hard, often grim lives of the factory workers. His dialog reenforces that by letting the world, the people and their problems be built up through their drunken speeches in the kebab shop, inter sibling bickering and the nostalgic rambling of the old.
That being said, some of the phrases don’t land as strongly as they could have. I’m loath to criticise translators too strongly, as it is a skill I simply don't have, but I felt that this could have used another run through the editing process. there are some word choices that felt out of place. For example, the insult berk is used between the workers, that is a very British insult and felt out of place in the Turkish context. That is a stylistic decision and I understand that trying to bring to life the colourful language of factory workers in another language requires those choices, but I found it distracting.
I strongly recommend Cemile. It has a great story, memorable characters, great prose, and a social conscience. If you like Solzhenitsyn, Yaşar Kemal or Charles Dickens, then there is a good chance you will enjoy this as well.