Review of ‘Bir Türk Ailesinin Öykusu’ by İrfan Orga
Translated by Dr. Arın Bayraktaroğlu
I was a little confused when I bought this book. I thought as it was written by a Turk, that it had been first published in Turkish. I was wrong. It was first published in 1950 in the UK under the name “Portrait of a Turkish Family”. It was published in Turkish 44 years later.
It tells the story of İrfan Orga from his birth in 1908 until his mother’s death in 1940. It starts with a picture of a well-off extended family living in Istanbul with all the privileges of wealth. You can guess it can only go downhill from here…
The young İrfan lives with his young parents, his mother only 15 when he was born, and his grandparents, nanny, cook and servant in Sultanahmet. All is good, in spite of his grandmother’s dictatorial side and a strict grandfather. The details of his childhood are told with affection and warmth, even his circumcision is an event to remember fondly.
However just as young İrfan begins school the effect of the First World War begins to be felt. His grandfather has died, the family business is sold and little by little the servants reduce, a smaller house is bought and food shortages are spreading. His uncle and then father are conscripted. Then a fire destroys their house and all their savings. İrfan, his mother, his brother and baby sister stay a while with their grandmother who has remarried, but soon move on to a cramped apartment. Their mother struggles to find out where their father is, as news comes that their uncle and aunt have died. Their grandmother joins the household, full of rage that her new husband wrote her out of his will. His father died on the road to Gallipolli.
Now the family really begins to know poverty. From never leaving her house alone, his mother now walks the streets, bargaining for every penny. She finds a job sewing uniforms in a sweatshop in Gulhane. She becomes a more distant figure to the children which is cemented by the boys being sent to school in Kadikoy, separated for the first time. Two years later İrfan is brought home after illness and neglect at the school. His brother is sick, and when his mother finally sees him, she does not recognise him.
By 1919 things are beginning to look up, his mother’s handiwork is bringing in a little more money and the boys are sent to Küleli Military School to be educated by the government, with the stipulation that they then attend the Harp academy and serve 15 years in the military afterward. The school is more than a little disorganised, not surprising considering that the country was being invaded by Allied troops. From there the story continues with training in Anatolia, holidays in Istanbul. He joins the airforce in 1931 and is based in Eskişehir. He moves the family to join him and from then his mother weakens. She begins to act oddly, believing İrfan’s grandmother wants her dead. Eventually she is committed.
This book was both intriguing and incredibly sad. Many of the relationships are dysfunctional, some by virtue of circumstance more than anything else. There is much anger unspoken throughout the book. Some actions are very hard to understand and yet it is easy to see the ripples spread out through the future relationships. A sense of helplessness and being tossed about by waves of external circumstance is very strong. And yet the pacing is such that you keep turning the page, wanting to know what comes next. Hoping it will be better.
One part I found particularly interesting was when his mother first refuses to cover her face when out in public. His grandmother is incensed but his mother is aware that times are changing and as she steps up to head the family, she will step out in public too.
One thing that could have been expanded on was the incredible changes that Turkey went through during those years. Living through the War of Independence while in military school would surely have brought some insight into the confusion of life in allied-occupied Istanbul. He mentions viewing Ataturk’s body after his death but does not tell us much more, especially surprising when it turns out that İrfan Orga was a friend of Ataturk’s adopted daughter Sabiha Gökcen.
There is an afterword where İrfan’s son, Ateş, tells the rest of his father’s story in brief. His marriage to an English woman, move to the UK and relationship with his son unfortunately carries some of the same sense of loss that marked his early life. He died in 1970 aged 62.
İrfan Orga (October 31, 1908 – November 29, 1970) was a Turkish fighter pilot, staff officer, and author, writing in English. He published books on many areas of Turkish life, cookery, and history, as well as a life of Atatürk, and a universally admired autobiography (Portrait of a Turkish Family, 1950). He also wrote two educational books for children. Orga witnessed at first hand not only the hardships of war, but also the Allied Occupation of Constantinople, the end of Ottoman Empire, and the birth of the modern Turkish republic. In 1942/43, while he was in the UK on a three-year diplomatic posting from the Turkish Air Force, he met a young married Norman-Irish woman, Margaret Veronica Gainsboro née D’Arcy-Wright. Since living with a foreigner was then a military offence in Turkey, Orga, having resigned his commission in early 1947, eventually fled the country for the UK, arriving in London just before the Christmas of that year (in absentia, he was convicted and fined in an Ankara court in September 1949). He never returned. After Margaret’s divorce was finalised in January 1948, they married.