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Book Review: Portrait of a Turkish Family
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book_portrait.jpgAuthor: Irfan Orga

Publisher: Eland Travel Books1

Reviewed by Stephen Keim

It was Marco the architect’s turn, again, to host Bloke’s Book Club and we feared the worst. The worst included having to camp under the stars in Stanthorpe in July and running up granite cliffs, the next morning, at 5.00 am. As it turned out, Marco’s genius turned benevolent and the Blokes only faced a slightly earlier start; delicious pizzas followed by Dolci Sapori sweets with lemon meringue tart and a blokey bit of team building watching the Queensland team send Locky off with a fitting series victory.

One disadvantage was that I had to suffer the cutting tongue of Marco’s wife, Maree, as she ridiculed, yet again, my efforts at bringing to the world amateur photography, sub-editor’s witty brilliance; and local sociology via my FaceBook photo albums. Still, I will take getting my arse metaphorically kicked, every time, if it comes with deliciously planned and perfectly executed pizzas in abundance.

Marco and Maree have recently returned from a holiday during which they spent several weeks in Turkey. Marco seems to have fallen very much in love with the late Kemal Ataturk. Portrait of a Turkish Family was Marco’s reading material for much of the journey and provided him with context and atmosphere for the sights he was taking in. He was keen to recommend it to the Blokes so we too could share in his new found knowledge.

Irfan Orga was born in 1908. As a result, he had no surname, Orga or otherwise, when he was born. Just as the English foisted surnames on the Welsh, thereby, creating a tribe of Williams, Davies and Joneses, Kemal Ataturk, as part of the secular republic he created, foisted surnames on the Turkish. Orga, it appears from an Afterword to Portrait, was chosen, inter alia, with the help of a pin and a map of the world.

Irfan Orga was born into a well to do family of rug merchants and exporters and lived in a beautiful house and grounds located near the water just behind the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Fate first struck when Orga was about five years old when his much loved grandfather died of a heart attack first experienced when out walking with the very young Irfan.

The family’s fortunes took further blows when war broke out and Irfan’s father and uncle were called up and left for the front, never to return. Illness struck Irfan’s widowed aunt and the family fortune was drastically diminished by a serious house fire. Shortages and poverty struck most people in Istanbul as the war dragged on and Irfan and his family faced one hardship after another.

When the war ended, Irfan and his family found their own way out of poverty but his own difficult childhood continued through the agency of military school. Eventually, Irfan found his way to officer school and a future career in the Turkish airforce. His postings took him to a number of different parts of Turkey and he achieved a level of prosperity. However, ill health and conflict within the family continued to place challenges in the way of happiness or even contentment.

Portrait was completed in England and published in 1951. The narrative leaves out much that might have been of interest in respect of the political events that brought the social changes experienced by the family. Portrait concentrates on happenings within the family. While Ataturk is mentioned both as a force for change and, at the end of his life, as a much loved figure, the reader experiences almost nothing of the struggle that brought independence for Turkey or the political decision making that followed success.

Portrait is an old fashioned book for a modern audience. It reminds me a little of other post WWII books that belonged to my parents and which I read in my own childhood.

Nonetheless, Portrait is beautifully written; easy to read; and full of interest on every page. As well as the insights I obtained concerning the dying days of the Ottomans and the early decades of the new secular Turkey, my frequent access to Wikipedia to consult the suburbs of Istanbul and the cities of Turkey mentioned in the book as I read meant that my knowledge of modern Turkey is much improved. It does indeed provide an intimate insight into the life of a family as they faced good times and bad across several decades.

The Blokes’ discussion mainly centred on Irfan’s own psychology. Several times during the book, he hints at his inability to connect emotionally with those around him. However, when his deficiencies in this regard are pointed out by his mother and grandmother, late in the text, it still seems to come as a surprise to him. He does not appear to lack empathy but the self-portrait that emerges from the pages is of someone who lacks the emotional intelligence to deal with the emotional needs of himself and others, especially, those close to him.

The Afterword is written by Ates Orga, the son of Irfan. Ates was born in 1943 but neither he nor his mother receives a mention in Portrait. Ates, mainly home taught by Irfan and now in his fifties, is an accomplished music performer, critic and producer.

The Afterword is full of revelations and insights that make it an important supplement to Portrait. We see another two decades of Irfan’s life and see him as a husband, father and writer, none of which emerged from Portrait. That is not to say that life in England between 1945 and 1970 was all beer and skittles for Irfan and his nuclear family. In an important way, however, Ates’ family portrait provides the reader with a connection between the lives we lead and those same dying days of the Ottomans which are portrayed in the opening chapters of Portrait.2

The Blokes were very happy with Marco’s choice. Opinions were mixed but even those who felt that Portrait had its flaws as literature were grateful for the addition to our reading range.

And Queensland demolished the Blues.

Stephen Keim


1. The motto of Eland books is “to keep the great works of travel literature in print. You can find it here.

2. For a real bringing of the eras together experience, read this Cornucopia article by Ates where he writes of his trip back to Turkey after 54 years during which he visits both sites and relatives who are covered in Portrait.

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