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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