One of the books I was delighted to find this summer at the University of Oslo Library was Irfan Orga’s “Portrait of A Turkish Family”. It was recommended by a friend about a year ago and I’m glad that I found it and read it after a year’s continuous search. The book tells the story of the author’s family, from its peak with several servants and leisurely lifestyle in the imperial Turkey to the starvation and hardships during and after World War I. It is not only beautifully written, but also a great intro to Turkish culture and landscape.
“Portrait” reminds me of a more recently published book, “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini. Many people are familiar with this book, about a rich Afghan boy befriending the family servant’s son. Extremely similar to “Portrait”, the story is also set against the backdrop of a series of events which turned the once wealthy family into refugees in a foreign land, struggling for a living. Again similar to “Portrait”, the book gives a lively description of the land and culture of Afghanistan.
Both books were a huge literary success. However, as I was reading “Portrait” and thinking about “Kite”, I somehow sensed something missing. Surely the main character’s family in either book descended to hardship, but at least Irfan’s grandmother still had expensive furniture to sell when the family was near starvation and Amir, the main character in “Kite”, and his rich father managed to flee to North America and escape the Soviet invasion. At any rate, they were the lucky ones in their home country. They were in the upper echelon. What about the vast majority who were less privileged, who scratched for a living even during peaceful times, whose family might have starved to death during a war? Is there a book about those people’s lives?
The closest I can think of is Xinran’s “The Good Women of China”, which tells short true stories of Chinese women from all walks of life. However, the book is not quite comparable to “Portrait” or “Kite” because the stories are anecdotal and unrelated to each other. They are also observed and told from a third person point of view instead of the more direct first person. So this is my quest: To find a well-written book, be it fictional or non-fictional, about an average person or an underprivileged person’s own life in a tumultuous society.
I would be grateful if such a book can be found. Otherwise, I would not be disappointed because there may be good reasons for the lack of such books. One possible reason is that the underprivileged are so busy scratching a living for themselves they hardly have time to observe and reflect on life. Consequently, they may not be able to describe their life or remember details in the past if a writer is interested enough to interview them, let alone write a book by themselves. George Orwell masterfully depicted this issue in “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, when the main character, interested in the mass’s opinion, asked a few surviving older folks to compare life now under the dictatorship and life before in a freer world:
“‘Was life better before the revolution than it is now?’ would have ceased once and for all to be answerable. But in effect, it was unanswerable even now, since the few scattered survivors from the ancient world were incapable of comparing one age with another. They remembered a million useless things, a quarrel with a workmate, a hunt for a lost bike pump, the expression on a long dead sister’s face, the swirls of dust on a windy morning seventy years ago: but all the relevant facts were outside their vision.”