Whatever political and literary sophistication Yashar Kemal achieved after he became a writer, his fiction grows essentially out of his village background. Until the 1970’s, he specialized in village novels that show the brutal conditions of peasants in the Adana region where he grew up—the Taurus Mountains and the Chukurova. In the 1970’s, Kemal moved on from the village novel to legendary tales and to novels set in the Istanbul area. The legends, however, were ones Kemal had heard as a child, and the Istanbul novels reflect political attitudes that Kemal began forming based on what he saw of village life, particularly the archetypal relationship of tenant and landlord.
Kemal’s special achievement is his depiction of peasant life. In Kemal’s work, the Turkish peasants are victimized by an appalling range of scourges, including the weather, hunger, hard labor, ignorance, superstition, disease, green flies, landlords, and one another. Among the few things that peasants have to fall back on is the close-knit structure of family and village life, which can be quite helpful when things go badly. The structure has a downside to it, however, that at times can make brother turn against brother.
Another outlet is the peasants’ imagination. Within their imaginations, they can daydream and fantasize, satisfying their wishes and righting wrongs. One happy result of such imagination is vigorous folk art—songs, designs on knitted socks, stories, and legends. One of the unhappy results is superstition—belief in jinn (spirits), peris (fairies), folk cures, and holy trees. Perhaps religious belief also fits in here, considering that among Kemal’s peasants such belief often leads to passive acceptance or fatalism—the attitude that whatever happens must have been decreed by Allah. The work of the imagination does not necessarily inspire inaction, however, for the songs and legends sometimes speak out against oppression and glorify those who speak out and rise against the ruthless landowning overlords.
Memed, My Hawk
The revenge motif looms large in Kemal’s first and most popular novel, Memed, My Hawk. The story begins in the isolated little world of Dikenli, the Plateau of Thistles, where the five villages owned by Abdi Agha are clustered. In the largest village, Deyirmenoluk, live both the Agha and the boy Memed, a tenant whose father is dead and who must work like a man to support his mother, Deuneh. All day long, Memed plows the fields of thistles, which leave his legs bloody, and endures the unmerciful beatings of the Agha. When he is eleven, Memed runs away across the mountain but is eventually discovered and driven back home by the Agha on horseback. Thereafter, the Agha bears down harder: He takes three-fourths instead of the customary two-thirds from Memed and Deuneh’s yearly harvest, so that Memed and his mother have even less to live on than the other tenants, who regularly starve in the winter. So it goes, Memed laboring mostly for the Agha and growing up stunted but bitter and tough as a mountain oak (the novel’s Turkish title, nce Memed, literally translates as “Slim Memed”). Still, Memed finds some happiness in the arms of Hatche, his sweetheart since childhood.
The turning point comes when Abdi Agha tries to force Hatche to marry his nephew Veli. Memed and Hatche elope and are pursued by the Agha’s gang. In a shoot-out, Memed kills Veli and wounds Abdi Agha; he then escapes, but Hatche is captured. Thereafter, unfairly charged with Veli’s death, Hatche languishes in a terrible Turkish jail while Memed pursues a life of brigandage. Memed also pursues Abdi Agha, who, after stomping Deuneh into the mud, fears increasingly for his own life. Memed pursues him into the Chukurova and burns a whole village around him, but the Agha miraculously escapes—only to deteriorate further psychologically. Meanwhile, Memed rescues Hatche, distributes the Agha’s land to the villagers, and earns a fabulous reputation for his daring exploits and generosity toward poor people. As Memed’s reputation grows, so does the Agha’s paranoia. Finally, when Abdi Agha’s hirelings kill Hatche, Memed rides straight into town, marches upstairs in the Agha’s house, and shoots the quivering Agha. Then Memed rides off into legend.
Despite Memed’s disappearance into legend, the novel has a suspiciously autobiographical cast. The reader here may be sharing one of the author’s youthful fantasies—Kemal identifying with his hero and seeing himself as a sort of Robin Hood figure. With one eye missing, Kemal certainly looks enough like a brigand. In any event, Memed, My Hawk is full of realistic details of village life and landscape, such as the fields of thistles, which, in a symbolic act of liberation, is burned at the end. Like his hero, Kemal grew up fatherless, and he no doubt heard inspiring tales from his own mother, who was descended from a family of brigands.
The political implications of brigandage in Memed, My Hawk are fairly clear. In a society where the law legitimates organized violence against the peasantry, large numbers of peasants are driven by desperation to go outside the law. Most of them join the brigands, who constitute a social underground. Morally, the brigands are no better than the aghas, with whom they sometimes hire out and form political alliances, but at least they are free and empowered, as symbolized by their colorful dress bristling with daggers, cartridge belts, and grenades. They attain moral legitimacy only by following the path of Memed, turning their violence against the aghas and becoming, in effect, guerrillas. (“Slim Memed” does not actually disappear into legend forever; he returns in sequels such as They Burn the Thistles, in which he helps oppressed peasants quell another mean, greedy agha.)
The Wind from the Plain
Whereas Memed, My Hawk is built around both legendary and realistic events, Kemal’s next novel, The Wind from the Plain, is unrelentingly realistic throughout. It details the annual migration of Anatolian villagers across the Taurus Mountains to the Chukurova, where they hope to pick cotton and thereby earn enough money to keep going for another year. The story would be utterly depressing if the villagers’ disasters did not sometimes lead to black, bitter humor.
When the villagers migrate, the whole village goes along—animals, pots and pans, the sick and the old. The migration is a ritual demonstration of village solidarity, perhaps, or a return to an ancestral nomadic existence, but it is also a motley scene with its basis more in custom than in common sense. Any solidarity is only on the surface, because the migration exacerbates old frictions into inflamed sores. The villagers are trying to rebel against the muhtar, who is plotting as usual to sell their labor cheap in return for a fat bribe. Dredging up grudges from many years before, an old couple (who are not related but know each other well) squabble over who will...
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Kemal, Yashar (Vol. 14)
Kemal, Yashar 1922–
Kemal is a Turkish novelist and journalist. He is Turkey's most famous novelist, both at home and abroad, as well as an outspoken political activist. The material for his novels is drawn from his native rural area, and is presented in a forceful yet lyrical prose style. He has often been mentioned as a possible candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
TALÂT SAIT HALMAN
In the 1950s Turkish fiction moved out of the centers of urban culture into rural Anatolia, giving rise to an impressive output which is often referred to as the "Village Novel." The practitioners of this brave new genre are, unlike earlier pioneers in the field, writers who were born and reared in poverty-stricken villages. Their work has the poignancy of personal agony experienced during their formative years.
The leading figure of the "Village Novel" is Yashar Kemal. (p. 181)
The Wind from the Plain … is actually the Turkish village novel par excellence: It typifies the strongest features as well as some of the basic defects of this genre. The narration is fluent and forceful, dialogue crisp and colorful, and the plot engrossing. Its principal failing is also typical: The characters, while serving admirably as stock-types, are devoid of individual traits and lack psychological motivation except for the pressures of poverty.
The Turkish title Ortadirek means "mainstay" and symbolizes Yasar Kemal's faith in the peasant as the central force of Turkey's future. The Wind from the Plain lionizes the dauntless spirit of the peasant to survive. (p. 182)
Talât Sait Halman, "World Literature in Review: 'The Wind from the Plain'," in Books Abroad (copyright 1970 by the University of Oklahoma Press),...
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A sure sense of setting is certainly one of the strengths of the Turkish writer Yashar Kemal. At all times in his funny and tragic story of a peasant who is raised up against his will to be a saint [Iron Earth, Copper Sky], he makes the reader vitally aware of the background—the mountains, the steppe, the huddled village, the forest. Indeed, these are not really 'background' at all: they are in there in the thick of it, conditioning events, limiting human action, rewarding some, killing others. Together with the elements, they constitute practically the novel's main character…. [Iron Earth, Copper Sky is a] title that gets its priorities just about right.
Peter Prince, "Intramural," in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 87, No. 2257, June 21, 1974, p. 894.∗
[There is a native witness of Turkey] who, in the half-dozen books of his that have been translated, has depicted his country with a close attention to detail and yet with a majestic, almost epic sweep.
Yashar Kemal has been compared to Thomas Hardy and Tolstoy, and has several times been short-listed for the Nobel Prize. This is interesting news, no doubt, but hardly illuminating. The author with whom Kemal feels a special kinship … is William Faulkner. This strange pairing-off becomes less strange once you know how closely the cotton-growing plains of Chukurova in South Anatolia resemble those in Yoknapatawpha County, and how similar are the blood-feuds, rural past-times, barn burnings, old time religion and incidents of local heroism….
[Kemal's] first novel, "Memed, My Hawk" achieved enormous celebrity when it was published in English in 1955. He has written many since, and though they appear regularly in translation, he has not received the critical acclaim or wide readership he deserves in America. He is revered in Turkey and read avidly in Sweden, France and in the Soviet Union, where his novels are—mistakenly, I think—assumed to be the result of some great access of Marxist indignation.
His newest novel to be translated here is, happily, a sequel to "Memed, My Hawk" and indeed it was published in Turkish as its second part. The title [is] "They Burn the Thistles."… (p. 11)
The landscape, the seasons, the wildlife, the flowers: Kemal works on a huge canvas but there is interest in every inch of it. This novel is a worthy successor to "Memed, My Hawk" and ought to send readers swiftly to "The Legend of the Thousand Bulls" "Anatolian Tales" or "The Wind From the Plain."… I doubt that anyone who reads "They Burn the Thistles" will hesitate in seeking these out and concluding that Kemal is an important literary figure. (p. 40)
Paul Theroux, "Turkish Delight," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 10, 1977, pp. 11, 40.
The Undying Grass is Kemal's eighth book of fiction to become available in English translation…. It is the third and last volume of his trilogy, which started with Ortadirek (The Wind from the Plain; 1960)…. The second part of the trilogy, Yer Demir Gök Bakir (1963), is also available in English: Iron Earth, Copper Sky. The concluding volume, Ölmez Otu (1969), now makes its appearance in English under the title of The Undying Grass, which connotes both the reference to the generic "everlasting plant" and the book's central theme—the indomitable spirit of the Anatolian to survive and to endure. (p. 676)
[The plot of The Undying Grass] is one of Kemal's most elaborate and complex story lines ever. The author has described it as the tale "of a people in the throes of adversity who make up a dream world for themselves and try to escape into it from the hard realities of their existence." (pp. 676-77)
The Undying Grass, with its epic power and dazzling insights into human drama, ranks as one of Yashar Kemal's masterworks and underscores the immense strength of his fictional art. (p. 677)
Talat Sait Halman, "World Literature in Review: 'The Undying Grass'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 4, Autumn, 1977, pp. 676-77.
No one knows the world of the Turkish peasant better than Yashar Kemal. In a half dozen novels and collections of short stories, he has been remarkably successful in making their way of life comprehensible to the Western reader, writing with respect, affection and understanding about their customs and beliefs and the hardships they face.
Something is definitely awry, though, in The Undying Grass, the final volume of Kemal's trilogy of life in an Anatolian village called Yalak. The gruff, earthy characters, with names like Spellbound Ahmet, Home-Leave Memet and Gooey Apti, who peopled earlier Kemal novels, are still there, and their surroundings are described with the same loving detail, but this time they sound different. Their speech, colorful and coarse, has suddenly become awkward and artificial.
It is hard to tell who is responsible for this disappointing turnabout, Kemal or his translator. In all likelihood, the latter is probably the culprit: The Undying Grass has not exactly been rendered into the most idiomatic English….
So irritating is the stilted dialogue that it is nearly impossible to appreciate the intriguing tale Kemal proposes to tell. His preferred themes of social and political protest and exploitation, in which the line between good and evil is always clearly drawn, have been muted here, enabling him to write with unaccustomed subtlety about another timeless problem: man's need for heroes, created out of thin air if necessary.
Larry Rohter, "'The Undying Grass'," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1978, The Washington Post), April 30, 1978, p. E4.
Yashar Kemal's novels, set in the backward villages of his native Taurus Mountains, have an abundance of … exotic verisimilitude. Perhaps there are other reasons for his wide popularity in Turkey …, but for American readers the fascination of his novels lies largely in his depiction of a way of life as utterly alien to us as life on Mars. (p. 14)
Yashar Kemal has been compared with Tolstoy, a burden no one deserves to bear, and has been praised for the epic quality of his novels. I don't know about "epic"—among reviewers it seems to mean something like "a tale of simplified passions set among primitives," which leaves any genuine epic out in the cold—but Mr. Kemal, who grew up in a village...
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Kușlar da Gitti (The Birds Too Are Gone) stands in contrast to the epic sweep of the huge novels for which … [Kemal] has gained his international reputation. It is short and spare, but it contains, in compact form, almost as a synecdoche, the strengths which have become Yashar Kemal's hallmarks.
The plot and the characters hold a firm grip on the reader's attention for their universal values, although they do not lack the authenticity of the Turkish context. The style is enchantingly lyrical in the narrative passages and fully attuned to the rhythms and colors of the Turkish language in the dialogues. The way Kemal establishes links between scenery and psychological states is nothing short...
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[The setting of Kemal's "Iron Earth, Copper Sky"] is the southern central part of his country, Antalya, in the foothills of the Taurus Mountains. As Mr. Kemal presents it, it is a timeless, primitive world; though there is brief mention of radios and tractors, the Government in Ankara is unbelievably remote—certainly much more remote than specters, saints, devils, witches and jinns, all of whom are real rather than metaphorical. In fact, the timelessness is such that legends ("in those days there were two holy persons in the world …") float easily into modern village happenings….
Even more than his earlier books, ["Iron Earth, Copper Sky"] comes from and lives on the borderland between fiction...
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Kemal, Yashar (Vol. 29)
Yashar Kemal 1922–
(Born Yașar Kemal Gökçeli) Turkish novelist, short story writer, essayist, dramatist, and poet.
Kemal is the most prominent of contemporary Turkish writers and the best-known outside his own country. His first novel, Ince Memed (1955; translated into English in two parts: Memed, My Hawk and They Burn the Thistles), earned him widespread recognition in his own country and brought him to the forefront of international literature. Like most of Kemal's works, Ince Memed focuses on life in a peasant village on the Chukurova Plain in South Anatolia. Encompassing traditional Turkish myths, folklore, and customs, this work has been praised as a narrative of epic ambition and minutely realistic detail. Paul Theroux has stated: "The landscape, the seasons, the wildlife, the flowers: Kemal works on a huge canvas but there is interest in every inch of it."
Kemal's fiction is directly informed by his political concerns. He is outspoken in his leftist principles and has spent a large part of his life supporting the Turkish peasantry. Viewed as an undesirable by the Turkish government, Kemal has been dismissed from numerous jobs and arrested several times. His fiction frequently addresses the brutal, destitute existence of the peasants under the reign of the agha, as well as the power struggles and blood feuds which rage among the peasants themselves. Beyond their depiction of savagery, however, Kemal's works affirm his compassion and respect for humankind. Unlike most of his works, the novel Akçasazin aνalari: Demirciler çarșisi cinayeti (1974; The Lords of Akchasaz: Murder in the Ironsmiths Market) is written from the perspective of the wealthy landowners rather than the peasants. Another of his later works, Al gözüm seyreyle Salih (1976; Seagull), portrays a boy's struggle to save a dying seagull's life. Described as a "fiercely moving account of a young boy's coming of age," Seagull is an intimate, psychological novel which complements the predominantly epic nature of Kemal's work.
(See also CLC, Vol. 14 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 89-92.)
The translation of Yashar Kemal's Anatolian Tales is in perfect keeping with one's stereotype idea of Eastern languages; the English in these three long and four short Turkish stories seems as timeless as the language of The Arabian Nights…. But for all the romantic associations the prose style may conjure up in the English reader, the stories are savage, far crueller than the emotional cruelty dreamed up by avante-garde western writers, for Kemal deals with the oppressed, the poor, and the frightened who are oppressed, poor and frightened in a very real physical sense; there is no shade of Franz Kafka peering out of the closet in these tales. Yet Kemal, for all his being the unblinking terrible Turk, is a writer with a great heart, and the passionate talent to show the human spirit enduring. In every story he captures at once the quality of life in the village of the Chukurova plain, the power structure of the village society, and the fineness of the line between existence and extinction. Terror, misery and death haunt the stories, but the writer balances indignant passion against a faith in the individual all too rare in western writers.
Stanley Reynolds, "Weirdies," in New Statesman (© 1968 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 76, No. 1947, July 5, 1968, p. 21.∗
Here [in Anatolian Tales] are seven miniature folk-epics from a brutal and elemental society—a sun-smitten plain in Turkey—that offers the perfect milieu for an art like Kemal's, pungent, controlled, harshly coloured, touched sparingly with lyricism or bitterness. It is his society, and he writes perfectly from within it, without overt sympathy or abhorrence. The villagers brutalise one another as hideously as they are brutalised by the local aghas or by the numbing heat that pounds almost audibly through these pages. A well-meaning young Commissioner is defeated by the stratagems of the rice-planters who flood out a village; a widower can find no one to suckle his baby; there are mass rapes, bestiality, stonings, murders. And the few moments of release—a kindly cobbler, an ecstatic encounter with a woman in the reeds, the crisp taste of green onions or the smell of pines—stand out as dramatic oases of a brief joy in life. The effects are perhaps a little too stark, too simplified, to ramify very widely. Nevertheless, certain antique human truths are illuminated for us in a new, astonishing locale.
Kenneth Graham, "On Czech Lines" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1968; reprinted by permission of Kenneth Graham), in The Listener, Vol. LXXX, No. 2050, July 11, 1968, p. 55.∗
Yashar Kemal writes of timeless things, the gin of the soul, so to speak, such as the plight of nomads in Central Turkey Today, or yesterday, or at any time you care to mention, it seems, always excepting 'their Glorious Past' and if that turns out to have been two weeks of pillaging at the end of the eighteenth century it was enough to give them a disastrous sense of history. One wonders whether they would make more headway if the Plight were to be built into their overall world view. Both the Irish and the Jews have scored notable successes with this approach. For a start it has given them a wonderful sense of humour which, on the evidence of The Legend of the Thousand Bulls, is something in very short supply among the nomads of Central Turkey. Like most primitives they have an overdeveloped sense of pride instead. Mr. Kemal is very romantic and passionate about what is probably a burning issue in his neck of the woods, he is sometimes eloquent on the problems of living in a timewarp. But the hieratic tone is off-putting, full of pathetic fallacies—winds moan, clouds weep—repetitions and suppurations of 'fine writing'. (p. 25)
Duncan Fallowell, "Time-Wasting," in The Spectator (© 1976 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 236, No. 7721, June 19, 1976, pp. 24-5.∗
The Legend of the Thousand Bulls recounts the 20th-century vicissitudes of a nomad tribe in Turkey, 'remnants from the age of the ancient Hittites'. These anachronistic shepherds and warriors struggle to keep their traditional way of life, while at the same time acquiring land on which to settle and earn a better livelihood. The sly and comparatively sophisticated villagers on the plains are more than a match for them.
There is rather too much technicolour in Yashar Kemal's writing. Horses are 'ruby-eyed', and a man of noble ancestry has 'the eyes of a ravening wolf'. But it is a powerful and touching story of the dwindling tribes whose 'tents, once so proudly upright, seven-poled', have become 'old and tattered with only a pole or two'.
John Mellors, "Dwindling Tribes" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1976; reprinted by permission of John Mellors), in The Listener, Vol. 96, No. 2466, July 15, 1976, pp. 62-3.∗
Yashar Kemal's The Legend of the Thousand Bulls is an epic prose poem about Turcoman nomads and their efforts, against all the odds and local hostility, to find a winter pasture….
It is a strange tale, exotic enough to require the occasional footnote. Stylistically, it belongs in the tradition of Eastern epic and Kemal employs all the devices of that genre. Lengthy descriptive passages, studded with historical, cultural and geographical detail, alternate with brief flurries of action and (as Kemal calls them) "cataracts of old reminiscences".
There is an abundance of epithets for every place and person: "His pointed face was like a fox's, but nasty, shrivelled, cringing,...
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In spite of the propagandistic bones that jut out unhandsomely here and there, [The Lords of Akchasaz: Murder in the Ironsmiths Market], Kemal's latest evocation of the mythic, blood-drenched, earth-rooted civilization of Turkey's Chukurova plains,… fairly shudders with passionate drama and scenery alive with portent. Here he chronicles the mastadon conflict between two Beys (feudal lords)—an honorable chunk of tradition in an era of encroaching Western-influenced materialism and bureaucracy…. Some rather more delicately shaded characters also have their moments, but this first-of-a-trilogy is essentially a throbbing lament for the days of giants, splattered with gore and battle cries … while also...
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Kemal writes compellingly and brutally of the death of the old ways on the Chukurova Plain of Turkey in this powerful novel ["The Lords of Akchasaz: Part I, Murder in the Ironsmiths Market"]…. In earlier highly praised novels, Kemal wrote of the same place, but of the poor who were tied to the land. Here he centers on two Beys, wealthy landowners, whose blood feud has run for generations…. Blood and death stalk these pages, in fantasy and fact…. But as Kemal tells the stories of the adversaries, he also suggests the changing times, shows the exchange of contemporary values for the old proud ways, points to the new ways creeping onto the beautiful wild plain with the coming of cars and tractors. Kemal sets his...
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"Bird and tree conjoin in us," wrote René Char in "Recherche de la Base et du Sommet." The urge to take flight and the need to root down and take hold are fundamental human polarities. This double need for grounding and transcendence lies at the very heart of "Seagull" [published in Britain as "The Saga of a Seagull"], Yashar Kemal's latest novel, and is reflected in all its curious images of children attempting to tie flying things to themselves—the paper kites, the bees and hornets on strings, the efforts to tame seabirds and attach them….
Political currency is not the great strength of the book; its relevance is timeless rather than narrowly contemporary. This is an archetypal story, the...
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To say that The Saga of a Seagull is about an eleven-year-old boy who adopts as a pet a young seagull with a broken wing might suggest some embarrassing piece of sentimental whimsy built on the child-plus-animal formula. Alternatively, it might suggest a modish, cynically ghoulish reversal of the predictable formula. The opening, in which the boy Salih first finds a small dead coot on the beach and immediately afterwards discovers the damaged "baby seagull", does make for uneasy reading, since the child's naïve philosophizing about death, and the repetitions of the word "baby", have an ominously gooey ring to them. Similarly, repeated mentions of "the little town" are far from reassuring because of the...
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Critics have compared Yashar Kemal with Tolstoy, Hardy, Steinbeck, Silone, Faulkner, and some other modern novelists, but he ultimately aspires to capture the spirit of the Homeric epic. At age 60, he stands as the most important figure of Turkish fiction in the 20th century….
The Lords of Akchasaz is a novel in the grand style, with a Homeric sweep and a powerful social conscience which is indeed reminiscent of Steinbeck…. Murder in the Ironsmiths Market is Part I. Part II, Yusufçuk Yusuf, has yet to appear in English. (p. 119)
Set in southern Anatolia's Chukurova Plain, which the author views as his Yoknapatawpha County, Murder in the Ironsmiths...
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