Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoğlu is one of Turkey’s great early novelists. He witnessed the end of the Ottoman Empire, the formation of the Republic of Turkey and played an active role in those turbulent times as a journalist and politician in addition to his literary career. Now available in English, his book Stepmother Earth is a masterful depiction of those eras.
Karaosmanoğlu tells his story in the form of a blackened journal that was found in a ruined village. The locals there claim it belonged to a stranger who lived with them for a few years. Soon, we find out the journal was written by Ahmet Celal, a Turkish officer who lost his arm in World War I. Celal wants nothing to do with occupied Istanbul, so decides to move to an Anatolian village, hoping to connect with the real people of his country. This reflects his ideology, which he drew from the Young Turks movement and the embryonic Turkish republic.
Celal quickly finds out that the rhetoric around rural life in Anatolia differs from its reality. In the village, he had hoped to find stoic and honest people who were worth waging a war for and are ready to fight for the newly formed nation. Yet the villagers do not treat Celal as a brother or a hero, but with hostility. He finds the peasants backward, their disinterest in the national project infuriating and their lifestyle and traditions repulsive. The officer gets particularly ill at ease when a village girl rejects his romantic advances.
Ahmet Celal himself is an intriguing character, if not a pleasant one. By today’s standards, he is a misogynist. He’s also contemptuous and condescending towards the villagers and orders them to become “better people.” While the hero regularly imagines himself partaking in Mustafa Kemal’s national struggle, he remains in the village.
Celal spends his time in isolation compulsively reading the papers in which he follows the Turkish War of Independence as the Greek army creeps ever closer to the village, bringing potential tragedy with it.
At the core of the book is the tension between the nationalist ambitions of elite military officers drawn from Istanbul’s educated class and the Anatolian masses that they are ostensibly building this new country for. This is exemplified in a fascinating dialogue between Ahmet and one of the villagers:
“How could a Turk not be one of his [Mustafa Kemal’s] supporters?”
“Sir, we are not Turks.”
“What are you then?”
“We are Muslims, praise be to God.”
This is an astute piece of dialogue as it accurately captures the historical reality for Anatolian peasantry during and just after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The idea of Turkishness as an identity and nationality was quite alien to the people who still identified themselves through the village and Ottoman millet system that was based on religion.
Stepmother Earth is beautifully written. Its characters are flawed and complex. What is more, the book offers a glimpse of the nation-building period and highlights the origins of societal tensions that still echo in contemporary Turkey.