The Undying Grass
Elia Kazan has called Yashar Kemal a storyteller in the oldest tradition; and Kemal has been touted as representative of the voice and soul of the Turkish people. Certainly The Undying Grass reads like an oral tale, at once realistic and fanciful, told from the wellspring of the creative imagination by a Middle Eastern sultan of the Word who knows intimately and authentically the essence of Turkey, past and present. All of which is to say that the book has an epic quality about it. In this sense Kemal (not unlike T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land) gives us a portrait not of Turkey alone; rather, he gives us a glimpse of human nature, a glimpse of myth, simultaneously inside and outside of time and place.
Kemal’s is a tale both grotesque and glorious, regional and universal, timely and timeless—lending itself to sparsely literal yet richly symbolic readings. Not to discuss too much genre and mode, other than to praise the variety and virtuosity of Kemal’s style and conception of form, here is a novel that reads like poetry, a narrative with the simplicity of a ballad and the sophistication of stream of consciousness technique—a realistic-naturalistic romance which fuses autobiography, allegory, history, and story.
Much of Kemal’s own life is implicit in this story: the Moslem religion; the horrors attendant upon seeing his father murdered while at prayer; the malarial death of his four brothers and sisters, his growing up poverty-stricken in northern Anatolia; his determination to learn to read and write; his work as a day laborer in the rice and cotton fields; his interest in the folk poetry of his homeland; his leftwing political involvement (including imprisonment in 1971 for twenty-six days); and his work as a journalist in Istanbul. Likewise, we see extensions of Kemal’s earlier books, all highly praised and pointing together toward possible Nobel nomination: Yellow Heat (1952), Kemal’s first collection of short stories; his early novels, Memed, My Hawk (1955), and The Wind from the Plain (1963); more stories, Anatolian Tales (1968); and the more recent novel, They Burn the Thistles (1973). The Undying Grass merely confirms once again that Kemal is an author of not merely Third World but of worldwide significance and stature, an author with abilities comparable to those of William Faulkner, whose work he admires.
Such biographical details in Kemal’s life carry over to the book’s implied author and narratorial voice, which is all-important. As mentioned, Kemal seems to speak credibly as the very soul of Turkey and its enduring earth—its “undying” grass, its people. Through Kemal’s voice the reader comes finally to feel that man’s individual intrigues, loyalties, betrayals, and beliefs, are indeed wondrous—even when matter-of-factly set against the more sublime wonderments and mysteries of collective generations as they spring from and return to the continuing earth. Ironically, Kemal’s understatement in describing this human procession makes it more wondrous.
For it is the people of the earth and the regenerative earth itself about which Kemal speaks with his curiously distanced but compassionate and oftentimes lyrical voice. Forefront are the land and the people and the myriad interrelationships of working, loving, and surviving the oppressions of a feudal social system and an indifferent climate and cosmos. The people are debt-ridden, downtrodden field laborers whose fears and freedoms are found in Allah and the Koran, in dreams, fanciful superstition, magic, and myths such as the Forty Holy Men and their magic cave, the Peri King and his magic ring, dancing green lights of bliss, and the spirits of the Chukurova plain where every fly is a jinn, every bee a devil, every serpent a monster.
Such things are to the people of Yalak village as real as the trucks and tractors they see on the road or the Injirlik-based American jets zooming above their heads, or the shadowy government investigators and police who, in company...
(The entire section is 1,703 words.)