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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter III. Literary representations of the “national character”

Primo, the Turkish child

Ömer Seyfeddin
Traduction de Şirin Güneşer et Ahmet Ersoy

Texte intégral

1Title: Primo, Türk çocuğu (Primo, the Turkish child)

2Originally Published: The fist part of the story (‘How he was born’) was published in Genç kalemler, Selanik, 1911. The second part (‘How he died’) was published in Türk sözü, Istanbul, 1914.

3Language: Ottoman Turkish

4The excerpts used are from a 1970 edition of collected stories: Ömer Seyfettin, Bomba – Bütün eserleri (Ankara: Bilgi, 1970), pp. 7–15, 29–32, 34, 38, 39, 57–60, 71–74.

About the author

5Ömer Seyfeddin [1884, Gönen, Balıkesir (northwest Anatolia, present-day Turkey) – 1920, Istanbul]: essayist and storywriter. The son of an Ottoman military officer from the Caucasus, he graduated from the military academy in Istanbul in 1903. Following the 1908 revolution, he served as an officer in Macedonia on missions against local guerillas. Later he resigned from the army and settled in Salonica (Gr. Thessaloniki) in pursuit of a literary career. A short life limited his active writing career to only nine years. Still, through his highly popular short stories and militant essays on literature and language, Ömer Seyfeddin became one of the most prominent names of the ‘national literature’ movement that set the stage for the emerging canon of modern Turkish literature in the following decades. He was highly inspired by the thought of Ziya Gökalp, the major ideologue of Turkish nationalism who also moved to Salonica following the 1908 revolution. Along with the latter, Seyfeddin launched the ‘new language’ movement, which demanded the establishment of Turkish as an ‘independent’ language, with a ‘purified’ vocabulary, grammar and syntax disposed of the Arabic and Persian elements ingrained in Ottoman Turkish. In 1911, collaborating with his friend Ali Canib, he started publishing the popular literary journal Genç kalemler (Young pens), in which he published his first short stories written in vernacular Turkish. Supported by the Committee of Union and Progress, the party that organized the constitutional revolution, the ‘Young Pens’ became a major site for advocating the agenda of linguistic Turkism. After 1911, he also published several articles and short stories in Türk yurdu (Turkish homeland), a journal published in Istanbul by one of the leading Turkists of the period, Yusuf Akçura. His short stories of the period underscored the strong Turkish presence in the Balkans. During the Balkan Wars, Ömer Seyfeddin re-enlisted in the army, and following the Ottoman defeat, was detained as a prisoner of war for ten months by the Greek army. Later, he returned to Istanbul and stayed there during the First World War. While teaching literature at a high school, he wrote numerous short stories that glorified the heroic deeds of ordinary Turks in the past. Amidst the depressive atmosphere of the war, marked by recurrent defeats and humiliations, Ömer Seyfeddin’s works mainly dwelled upon the military glories of the sixteenth century, the Ottoman ‘golden age’. For him, the primary purpose of literary activity was the enhancement of national consciousness and self-pride among the reading public. Although he died young, Ömer Seyfeddin’s employment of folk themes and his plain and unadorned style make him one of the pioneers of modern Turkish prose. His moralistic short stories have remained immensely popular and, thanks to the strong nationalist biases of official curricula, are still considered essential reading for schoolchildren today.

6Main works: Primo, Türk çocuğu [Primo, the Turkish child] (1911); Yarınki Turan devleti [The Turanic state of tomorrow] (1914); Ashab-ı kehfimiz, İctimai roman [Our seven sleepers, a social novel] (1918); Harem (1918); Yüksek ökçeler [High heels] (1926); Gizli mabed [Hidden temple] (1926); Bahar ve kelebekler [Spring and the butterflies] (1927); Bomba [The bomb] (1938); Beyaz lale [The white tulip] (1938).


7The short stories of Ömer Seyfeddin, written between 1910 and 1920, read as a chronicle of Turkish nationalism as it evolved in its critical decade. Based in Salonica, the ‘New Life’ movement, of which the author was a part, aspired to awaken the Ottoman Turkish intelligentsia from what the group members termed the ‘internationalist and humanist slumber’, as well as from ‘illusions of Ottomanism’ engendered by the 1908 revolution. The year 1911 was a significant turning point in terms of the breeding of nationalist sentiment, as the Italian invasion of Tripolitania (Ottoman Libya) marked the beginning of ten years of incessant warfare and defeat for the Ottoman Empire. Ömer Seyfeddin’s early stories very much reflect (and contribute to the shaping of) the bitter and reactionary nationalism of the Turkish speaking Muslim elite. Frustrated by the lack of national consciousness among Ottoman Turks, Ömer Seyfeddin contrasts them with the ‘awakened’ nations of the Balkans, displaying even a certain respect for the guerillas and the enemies against whom he fought in Macedonia and during the Balkan Wars.

8Primo, Türk çocuğu, written on the eve of the Balkan Wars, vividly conveys the predominant mood of frustration and anger among the Ottoman Muslim elite in Salonica as it recounts a story of personal awakening taking place in the ferment of the struggle with the Italians in Libya. Similar to Ömer Seyfeddin’s other narratives from the period, ‘Primo’ lavishes attention on the rooted Ottoman presence in the Balkans and emphasizes the immanent threat of disintegration and complete annihilation facing the Muslim-Turkish populations in the region. The story narrates how the news of the Italian invasion of Tripolitania shatters the family of the suave and Europeanized engineer Kenan Bey. Kenan Bey, who lived with his Italian wife Grazia and his son Primo in Salonica, was a Freemason fully devoted to the cosmopolitan ideals of European civilization. The trauma of the colonial assault, augmented by the tensions building in the Balkans, has a profound transformative effect on Kenan Bey, who suddenly confronts the ‘dark side’ of European civilization and starts reconsidering his personal allegiances. Coming to terms with what Europeanization has cost him, he rediscovers, to the utter surprise and revulsion of his wife, his true Turkish identity. On the other hand, the protagonist of the story, Primo, who can barely utter a word of Turkish, is converted by a classmate named Orhan (the son of a pasha), who recounts to him stories of Ottoman heroism and glory. In the end, overtaken by patriotic zeal following the outbreak of the Balkan War and the occupation of Salonica by Greek forces, the child decides to sacrifice his life for the defense of the national cause in the region.

9Primo and Kenan Bey’s sudden ‘discovery’ of their national roots, their acute sense of belatedness, anger and shame, their unreserved contempt and jealousy towards the ‘dissenting’ non-Muslims, as well as their rising anxiety over imperial dissolution, are all highly emblematic of the quandaries of the younger generation of Ottomans living in the final decade of the Empire. The story also demonstrates how this overwhelming mood of desperation engenders a rising predilection for fetishizing violence, along with an obsessive yearning for heroism and for the restoration of Ottoman (or Turkish) power and glory. Ömer Seyfeddin is among the earliest Ottoman authors who employed representations of ‘Turkish race and character’ as dominant literary tropes. Since national characteristics are considered to be innate to every Turk, once Primo and his father ascertain their true identity, they immediately revert (from their lifelong cosmopolitan relapse) to the unsullied cultural essence of their original nationality and turn into zealous national heroes. The heroes’ ‘enhanced’ state of national consciousness is marked above all by an extreme sense of intolerance towards all non-Muslim Ottomans as well as Europeans. Highly indicative of the mounting xenophobic mood of the period, the non-Muslims are represented en bloc as anti-Turkish nationals, traitors and enemies who deserve, in the end, to be crushed and duly eradicated (the historical model evoked here is Attila the Hun, under the authority of whom all Europeans “wailed like dogs”). Ömer Seyfeddin’s characterization of the minorities as potential collaborators and enemies becomes an enduring trope in Turkish nationalist literature, especially in the days following the partition of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. His stories have also contributed significantly to the shaping of a dominant undercurrent within the Turkish national psyche: a collective vision about the solitary but upright existence of the Turkish nation, forever withstanding the undue aggression of multiple enemies, both from within and without.


Primo, the Turkish child

I. How he was born

11Under the starless sky of a chilly and dark September night, desperate and anguished Salonica sleeps motionless, as if weary of the demonstrations, the excitement, and the clamor of the day.

12The docks are quiet… the lights of the Olympos Palace, Kristal, Splendid Palace and the other small night clubs are all out. The bells of the Catholic church, dominant and assertive, strike three. With frantic harmony, their gluttonous roars penetrate the dark. Slowing down at times, or suddenly enthusiastic, the rumbles float over the worriless Jewish districts, reveling in their golden dreams of wealth and profit. Then, the echoes rise all the way up, reaching the extensive and dense rooftops of the bold and taciturn Turkish district […]. Further down, beyond the stones piled up for the construction of a tram line, in front of the stairway to the sea, stands a solid and motionless shadow […]. The poor and pensive figure in question is the highly respected young engineer Kenan Bey […]. Among foreign and Levantine circles, he is much admired for his suave manners, his politesse and elegance. He is known for his ease with European manners, as well as for his abhorrence of Turkishness, considered synonymous with uncivilized fanaticism and sheer savagery. Having completed his education in Paris, Kenan Bey returned to his motherland about ten or eleven years ago. Like all others coming back from Paris, he found a well-paying job in Izmir and married a beautiful Italian girl. […]

13Tonight, Kenan Bey could not decide what to do! […] With vigilant steps, he reached the shore. Deliriously, as if walking in his sleep, he asked himself repeatedly: “How could this happen? How could this happen?” He could not believe what he had heard and saw today, or the reports that he had read in the newspapers […]. Into the twentieth century, when one would expect the universal acknowledgment of the rights of all individuals, communities, states and nations, how was such a brutish assault possible? What a shameless crime! […]

14“Oh, the Europeans, who serve the cause of humanity!” he grumbled. He started reconsidering some activities of the Europeans to which he had previously not attached any importance, or had even deemed normal. At first, he considered France. The nation that had always been the vociferous defender of virtue and humanity has been soaking Africa in blood for a hundred years, killing the unarmed, pure, innocent, warm, gracious and noble children of the Sahara with her machine guns, destroying quiet towns and peaceful homes with her blazing cannons, enslaving whole nations that have done no wrong, taking away their country, property, obliterating their honor, their lives and souls […]. These savage, merciless and formidable Europeans. Completely taking over unarmed Africa, they also shared out Asia, coldheartedly referring to this intrusion as the “Eastern question.” They refused to consider the millions of [subjugated] men as human beings, and treated them as if they were lower than animals … Russia intruded on Turkish land with unimaginable cruelty. Joining forces with England, she is determined to erase ruined Iran from the map of the earth, hoping to exterminate an ancient nation with three thousand years of history. The partition of Turkey is also immanent! For she is considered an obstacle to the pillage of Asia. […]

15[Kenan Bey] conceded that all his life he had been fooled by false and rotten ideas. The denial of ethnic and national feelings, the dreams of “internationalism and masonry”—all these were so ridiculous and foolish that they would make any man with the slightest capacity of thought break into tears. Unwillingly asking himself who he was, Kenan Bey could not bring himself to say “I am Turkish.” He felt like crying out of shame and anger, and realized that until then, he had lived as a worthless corpse carrying an enslaved soul. He merely was an obedient servant, a petty slave possessed by the Europeans, who were in complete agreement on the need to wipe out the Turks from the face of the earth. […]

16[Exasperated, Kenan Bey spends the night in a hotel. In the morning he goes back home, and finds his wife, Grazia, packed up and ready to leave.]

17Grazia has their passports ready. She asks:

18– “When are we leaving Kenan? Tomorrow?

19– Leaving for where?

20– Egypt, Istanbul or Italy. […]”

21Kenan turns aside. Looking out the window, he says:

22– “I am not going anywhere.”

23Grazia cannot believe him:

24– “What? Are you staying in Salonica? […]”

25At that moment Primo comes in, walking slowly, pensive and pale […] with a deep look in his eyes, as if he were gazing into the distance. His mother deems it inappropriate to argue in his presence. In a stern and angry tone, she says:

26– “Go out Primo, this is a private conversation.”

27The child does not object. He leaves without a word, leaving behind his father, an ashen face, and his mother, whose lips are shaking as she takes out her gloves. So, this was what it came to. Primo knew this was coming. He reflected upon the events of the previous day. He hadn’t gone to school that day. He went fishing with the Greek boys he had met at the Union Garden […]. [Later] he saw his classmate Orhan in front of the summer theater, reading a newspaper with another Turkish boy, a bit older than him. Orhan called him over. He was the son of a Turkish pasha; a dominant character among his friends, never afraid of the frères at school […]. Primo did not know any Turkish. Orhan had to speak in French. He translated to him what he held in his hands; the Young Turk Declaration. He told Primo that Turks and Italians were now at war. He became more intense as he spoke: Turks were the bravest, noblest and strongest nation in the world. For centuries, they ruled over Asia. Attila had crushed Europe, making them wail like dogs. The Turks had cleared the path of civilization, spreading [the seeds of] heroism, pure blood, unblemished morals and innovation everywhere they went, acting as instigators of natural selection. The greatest government of the world was founded by Chingiz Khan, and a small group of people descending from the grand Chingizid line destroyed the Eastern Roman Empire, that is Byzantium, took over Anatolia, united the various Turkish elements and marched as far as the gates of Vienna. Today, the entirety of Europe attacked the Ottoman Turks, striving to annihilate the ones who used to edify Europe. But surely, they would not succeed. […]

28Primo was standing in front of the door, with his hands in his trouser pockets, his big, hazel eyes fixed on the floor, pondering his memories of the day before […]. His mother had ordered him out while talking to his father […]. Was he a dirty fly that only annoyed her? No, he was not a dirty fly; he was as brave and heroic as those Turks Orhan talked about, the ones who used to rule over Europe and Asia. A Turk that belonged to the race of everruling kings, lords, khans and emirs could not be thrown out. How could his mother dare to do that! […]

29Suddenly, he heard his mother calling:

30– “Primo, come in! […]”

31His mother was standing next to the table. His father had not moved from the armchair at all. They both looked pale. His mother wanted to embrace him. Primo refused with enormous gravity:

32– “Slow down.”

33He raised his hand like a miniature tragedy actor. Grazia froze, with the commanding manner of this child who had transformed so suddenly. She felt unable to breathe. Primo sat on the armchair next to his father, just like a grown up man. He placed his head on the palm of his hand, and with a strange French accent he said:

34– “What is it? Why did you call me?”

35He did not speak in Italian. Grazia was unable to utter a word. Was this a nightmare? […] Kenan dared to interrupt the silence that grew heavier with time. Looking down, he said:

36– “My child, you know that there is a war. Your mother and I are breaking up. Do you want to stay here with me and be a Turk? Or do you want to go to Italy with your mother and be an Italian.”

37Abruptly, Primo jumped off from his seat […] and with quite broken Turkish, screamed from the top of his lungs:

38– “Me… Turko Child… Me no Italiano. Me here, me child Turk.”

39In pain and shock, Grazia collapsed on the nearby chair. Kenan could not believe his eyes and ears. Then, Primo grabbed a chair […] and, violently, hurled it, shattering Victor Emmanuel’s picture on the wall. […]

II. How he died

40[Following the outbreak of the Balkan Wars and the occupation of Salonica by the Greek forces.]

41After having decided to kill himself, Primo felt a sweet and pleasant comfort come over him. It was as if his pain had abated. The school had been closed for a while. The Turks had fled, and all the buildings were occupied by the Greeks.

42He had not planned his final hour yet. He went out and began to wander. Everything, every space had changed. Ah! The only thing that had not changed was our officers. They were entertaining their dirty and worthless selves, which they had barely saved from the enemy after they had lost their troops, cannons, weapons, land, honor and property […]. These petty officers were so ignorant about their nationality, they would even ask each other what “Turan” was. They knew next to nothing about Turkish history. Our enemies, on the other hand, pursued the ideals derived from their national spirit, and carried out the great duty given them by history; happily spilling blood for their traditions, their fatherland and their separated brothers. The Greeks sacrificed thousands of lives for the “Megalo Idea,” their great ideal […]. The Bulgarians threw themselves into the line of fire, crying cheerfully: “Nashi, nashi, Tzarigrad, nashi,” declaring: “Istanbul will be ours, Istanbul is ours.”

43But Turks… Turks have no idea, not even the smallest of aims […]. Members of such a nation without a public and common will, conscience and spirit are chauvinistic, egotistic and arrogant. […]

44When [Primo] returned to the house, it was nearly dark […]. As if ordering himself, he said, “Let’s sleep now.” Yes, he had to wake up early the next day […]. He went downstairs. Washed his face. Came back to his room. He placed his revolver on his bosom. Pulled up the blanket. […]

45He slept, with many dreams. Misty and extraordinary dreams […]. [He] walked in broad valleys filled with warm red blood, teeming with millions of enemy corpses […]. [Then] from the east, from the land of Turan, a crescent rose in the azure sky… There was a tiny star inside it… Primo watched in awe… His feet were wet… he bent forward and saw that he was immersed in blood up to his knees … This was it, the blood of the Turk’s enemies … The blood turned into a huge lake… An endless crimson lake… reflecting the image of the crescent and the star in the sky… Ah, our flag comes to life; our real flag, the physical embodiment of our holy flag.

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