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Orhan Pamuk: Cevdet Bey ve Oğullari [Cevdet Bey and His Sons]

Orhan Pamuk’s first novel has never been published in English, though it has been translated into many other languages, as you can see below. Why it has not been translated into English is not clear, at least to me. It is certainly long – the Turkish text is 616 pages – but then so are some of his other works. It is not written in the post-modernist style of his later works but is a family saga, set over three generations, written in a fairly realist style. However, it is still an interesting work, outlining some of Pamuk’s concerns, to be found in his later works, particularly the difference between Turkey and Western Europe and the influence of the latter on the former, and is well worth reading.

As the title tells us this book is about Cevdet Bey and his sons (and also the friends of his sons, his brother, his nephew, his wife and his grandson). (Bey is a Turkish title meaning, roughly, Mr. The female equivalent is Hanım. Prior to Atatürk’s reforms in the 1920s, Turks generally did not have last names and adults were usually referred to by their first names followed by Bey or Hanım, though those of higher rank would be called Pasha. This changed with Atatürk’s reforms, when Turks had to invent last names for themselves and is an issue for one of the characters in this book.) We follow the family during three periods. The first period is set in1905. The second and main period is set between 1936 and 1939 and there is an epilogue set in1970. The book is mainly though certainly not entirely set in Istanbul and, while the book focuses on the family and their close friends and relatives, it is also very much concerned with what is going on in Turkey (and, to a much lesser extent, in the rest of the world.)

The first part concerns Cevdet Bey’s day on 24 July 1905. Cevdet is the younger son of a civil servant. His father had been working in the provinces, first in Kula and then Akhisar. When his wife had taken ill, he had wanted to move the family to Istanbul for her health but his request for a transfer had been denied, so he had resigned, moved to Istanbul and set up a timber business. Nusret, the oldest son, had had medical training and then gone off to France. He had not been successful there and eventually returned. Meanwhile, Osman, the father, had died and there was no money for Cevdet’s education so he had had to take over the timber business. He had converted this into a hardware and lighting store and done very well, helped by getting the lighting contract for the city, obtained by extensive bribery. He is now thirty-seven, successful and single, though engaged. His fiancee is Nigân, daughter of a pasha. Cevdet feels that he is moving up in the world by marrying the daughter of a pasha.

During the day he will carry out various tasks. He tries to get an outstanding debt paid but the debtor is away. He is stopped in the street and given a letter, which turns out to be from Marie Çuhacıyan, the Armenian mistress of his brother. Nusret, like his mother, has tuberculosis and is very ill. He had been married but the marriage had not worked out. The son of the marriage, Ziya, is now living with an aunt. (Ziya, incidentally, is the only character to appear in all three sections of the book and still be alive at the end.) Cevdet reluctantly goes off to see his brother. The two do not get on. Nusret is a Young Turk (i.e. member of a group favouring abolition of the absolute monarchy) and is also critical of everyone and everything. He will not accept medical treatment and has no money. However, this time he asks two favours of his brother – to fetch Ziya and get a doctor. Cevdet does both. Cevdet also visits his future father-in-law. There is an interesting scene where Şükrü Pasha, the future father-in-law, is relaxing after a very heavy lunch, thinking of having a cigarette, a cup of coffee and then a sleep. A similar scene will be repeated over thirty years later with Cevdet in the role of Şükrü Pasha, not the only time that Pamuk will have two similar scenes across the years. He also has lunch with Fuad Bey, a good friend, who warns him that Şükrü Pacha is broke.

We then jump to December 1936. Cevdet and Nigân are married and have three children, Osman, Refik and Ayşe. Cevdet has done very well, particularly by profiteering in sugar during the war. He is now withdrawing from the business and handing over to Osman. Osman is the sensible and serious member of the family, married (but with a mistress, which his wife knows about). Much of the focus is on Refik and his friends. Refik is an engineer but, nominally, works in the business with Osman. However, he is not interested in the business and finds excuses not to go to work. He is married to Perihan. He has two main friends. They are Ömer, son of the pasha who first introduced Cevdet to his future father-in-law, and Muhittin. Much of the book focuses on these three. None of the three is happy, either in their personal lives or with the situation in Turkey. Ömer has just returned from England (he comments on the English stereotypical view of Turkey). He is also an engineer and has got a job building a railway tunnel in the provinces, which will earn him a lot of money. However, after this work is completed, which gives him a focus in life, he loses all focus, including his engagement to a woman he loves and what he wishes to do with his life. Refik hates his life – his job with the family firm, his marriage and the way Turkey is going. He essentially abandons his wife and child and goes out to see Ömer, staying there for a very long time, trying to work out a theory of rural development. While he writes a book about it, he finds it difficult to get anyone in government to treat it seriously. Muhittin wants to be a poet but has vowed to kill himself if he is not a published poet by the time he is thirty. He ends up finding a meaning to life by joining a Turkish nationalist party.

All three are very much concerned that Turkey is not going the way they want it to go. They are very much concerned at Turkey’s place in the world and there are numerous comparisons between Turkey and other European countries, mainly France and Germany, generally to the detriment of Turkey. They want Turkey to modernise, yet remain true to its traditions. They hate the older generation that is running the country. They also hate their own lives. They do not want to be like their fathers, simply marrying and having children and doing a money-paying job which is not in any way rewarding, apart from the money. Yet, they cannot seem to find a satisfactory way to avoid this trap. The young women, too, are starting to feel trapped. They want more freedom, including the right to see male friends without being accompanied by an adult and the right to choose their own husband. This is a source of conflict throughout the book.

The book ends in 1970. Cevdet has died early on in the second part. His son, Refik, has also died, leaving two children, Ahmet, a would-be artist, now aged thirty, and a daughter, Melek, who is married. Refik’s widow, Perihan, has remarried. Ahmet is struggling with some of the same things his father did. He worries about an impending coup, which he has learned about from his uncle Ziya, Nusret’s son, still alive. (An actual coup took place in 1971.) And it is still difficult for him to see his girlfriend without her being accompanied by an adult.

While certainly not of the standard of his later work, this is certainly an interesting account of life in Turkey during the twentieth century, albeit from the standpoint of a prosperous family, with barely a glimpse at the life of the average, impoverished Turk. The only ones that seem even vaguely happy are those, like Cevdet Bey, who more or less accept the status quo and do not seek change. The rest of the characters tend to be unhappy and miserable with their own lives, their family and what is happening in Turkey. Clearly, for Pamuk, things are not going well.

Publishing history

First published in 1982 by İletişim Yayınları
No English translation
First published in French as Cevdet Bey et ses fils by Gallimard in 2014
First published in German as Cevdet und seine Söhne by Hanser in 2011
First published in Italian as Il signor Cevdet e i suoi figli by Einaudi in 2010
First published in Spanish as Cevdet Bey e hijos by Mondadori in 2010
Also published in Arabic, Bosnian, Chinese, Dutch, Greek, Polish, Russian and Serbian