They Burn the Thistles
Yashar Kemal has been described as the first Turkish author to break the language barrier and become an international literary figure. Reading They Burn the Thistles, one understands why he has achieved this reputation. At a time when much fiction writing seems to be confined to either popular, highly sexed, superficially disguised exposés of famous people or to ornate, often precious, academic novels designed more for analysis than enjoyment, Yashar Kemal has produced an exciting, dynamic, and beautifully written narrative which is both literature in the highest sense of the word and a joy to read. No doubt the story could be analyzed for symbols and messages, but its main attraction is the appeal that good writing has possessed from Homer to Graham Greene: that of interesting characters moving through a vivid landscape, conducting their lives from moral and physical necessity. The reader turns the pages of They Burn the Thistles because he cares about the peasant Memed and the other characters and about the outcome of their collective story.
They Burn the Thistles combines the excitement and density of a nineteenth century novel with the grandeur and sweep of a prose epic and then adds the psychological insights and sophistication of style of the modern novel. The result is quite unique and satisfying. At times, the narrative reminds one of Thomas Hardy, but at other moments the only possible comparison seems to be with the Iliad or the Odyssey. Kemal has gone beyond the traditional well-made novel without lapsing into artificial tricks and exercises in academic cleverness. He has done what great writers always are forced to do by the power of their genius: he has stretched his technique to meet the requirements of his story. The technique is not there to serve its own ends, but to serve the writer’s vision.
Yashar Kemal’s narrative combines folklore, fact, fantasy, and a dynamic prose style to produce what can only be referred to as a modern epic. Here, he is a spokesman for his people, a race which until now has had no voice. As Elia Kazan has phrased it, Kemal addresses the world through his fiction as if “all humanity were clustered for warmth and courage around his campfire.” The words are well chosen, for the tale of They Burn the Thistles is one of courage and human integrity, and the men and women in it are warmblooded individuals, capable of violence as well as tenderness, with a craving for revenge which burns as strongly as any need for honor or justice. They are not always rational, but they are immense creations, figures with the soil on their boots and on their hands and with the love of it in their hearts. Above all, They Burn the Thistles is a tale of the land, of the importance of the land to the people, and of what happens to men and women when they lose their land. It is a narrative which raises fundamental issues that perhaps have been forgotten in more “sophisticated” Western countries.
Memed, My Hawk, Yashar Kemal’s earlier prizewinning story of modern Turkey, was published in 1961 to great acclaim. The novel told of Memed, a peasant, and of his struggles against a powerful lord and his attempts as an avenger of his people. They Burn the Thistles continues the tale of this feudal world in which Memed, the hawk, must fight for his people, the poor peasants, against yet another land-thirsty agha. The novel is the story of this bitter war between the peasants of the Taurus mountains of Anatolia and the greedy and covetous men who are prepared to steal, burn, and murder to gain control of another piece of earth. The narrative of this intense struggle becomes almost Homeric in its power. The melodrama inherent in the plot never exists for its own sake, but is the logical outcome of the drives of the men and women in the story. This is the secret of Kemal’s success: the human beings in his story demand sympathy and consideration from the reader. It is impossible to remain indifferent to these dynamic, restless souls....
(The entire section is 1,830 words.)