Business travel took me through the Istanbul Airport for the fifth time since the start of the year, and I had enough time to check the same bookshop where I found Nazim Hikmet’s wonderful Human Landscapes from My Country. In the small section of Turkish literature in English translation dominated, naturally enough, by Orhan Pahmuk, I found Orhan Kemal’s slim novel, The Prisoners (72. Ko?u? or Ward 72 in the original).
Kemal, a prolific and popular writer specializing in novels about the lower classes, was a contemporary of Hikmet and served time with him in the same jail–an experience he recounted in his 1947 book, In Jail with Nazim Hikmet“>In Jail with Nazim Hikmet. His most famous book, The Idle Years, now available from Peter Owen Ltd. with a preface by Pahmuk, is a semi-autobiographical Bildungsroman. Like Hikmet, he died in exile–in Bulgaria, in his case–and his works have since become recognized and accepted as some of the best Turkish literature of the 20th century. A substantial site, including an English language section, is available at www.orhankemal.org, and Everest Publications, a Turkish press, has brought many of his books, including a few English translations, back to print.
The Prisoners tells a classic tale of human hopes and tragedy. Ahmet, known a “Captain” by his fellow inmates from his time as a merchant seaman, receives a little money from his mother while serving a sentence for the murder of two men who’d killed his father. Against his instincts, he’s talked into gambling it in the running crap grame controlled by another prisoner, Solezli. He wins some, and treats the other inmates of Ward 72, a filthy hole to which the lowest tier of prison society is resigned, to a little food, some beans and meat.
The taste of warm, filling food soon leads Captain to return to the crap game. He wins again, and soon is off on a winning streak. Ward 72 is transformed with his takings. He becomes a force in the prison. He begins to have hopes of a life after his sentence is up decades in the future.
Nothing good lasts forever, of course, and it all comes to a grim end. You know this from the moment Captain comes back to Ward 72 with cash in hand, but Kemal succeeds in making the story fresh and gripping. Despite the bleak and ruthless prison setting, The Prisoners is as simple and powerful as a classic short novel such as The Red Badge of Courage.
The Prisoners, by Orhan Kemal, translated by Cengiz Lugal
Istanbul: Everest Publications, 2012