Turkish Literature history
In this little book Talat Halman continues his lifelong campaign to acquaint the English-speaking public with Turkish literature. This introduction is intended for readers who know nothing about the subject and do not have the time or interest to read a more in-depth study. Inevitably, it occasionally bogs down into long lists of names, but on the whole it is surprisingly readable.
The title is perhaps a little bit misleading. Yes, Turkish literature in some form has existed for a thousand years or more. However, most of the early literature was transmitted orally for centuries and was not consigned to writing until much later. Furthermore, the term Turkish literature is used to describe works written in at least three very different forms of the Turkish language: (1) the Turkish of the common people, in which many of the best- known traditional song lyrics, proverbs, folk tales, and the scenarios of the shadow puppet and orta oyun plays were com-posed; (2) the Ottoman Turkish language of the court, which produced a rich tradition of highly stylized poetry on themes of love and mysticism, as well as scholarly treatises; and (3) the so-called Öztürkçe, or “pure Turkish”, created by the government-mandated language reform beginning in 1928. Besides changing the written form of the language from the Arabic to the Latin alphabet, this reform eliminated most Arabic and Persian words, replacing them with neologisms ostensibly based on old Turkish roots. Ottoman Turkish was unintelligible to the vast majority of the populace who were, in any case, illiterate (“the rate of literacy remained below 10 percent until the mid-1920s” [p.58]), so that all works written before that date were necessarily addressed to an elite minority. Most of the great Ottoman poets wrote poetry in Arabic and Persian as well as Turkish. Celaleddin Rumi, arguably Turkey’s greatest poet of all time, and certainly the one best known outside of Turkey, wrote almost all of his poetry in Persian. The language and alphabet reforms rendered all Turkish literature written before the 1930s—including even the speeches of Atatürk—unintelligible to all but specialized scholars. The revolutionary ideology of the Turkish Republic likewise demanded a clean break with Ottoman tradition, so Turkish authors from the 1930s on found most of their inspiration in modern Western European—especially French—literature.
The gulf separating popular oral literature from the elite literature of the court was also reflected in the values embodied in the two literary traditions. According to Halman, “one could conceivably regard the corpus of folk poetry as a massive resistance to or a constant subversion of the values adopted by the Ottoman ruling class” (p.29), while “the conformist poets, perpetuating the same norms and values century after century, offering only variations on unchanging themes, and looking to virtuosity as the highest literary virtue, wrote celebrations of the triad of the Ottoman system: dynasty, faith, and conquest” (p.44).