Yaşar Kemal Gökçeli

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Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Yashar Kemal (keh-MOL), originally Yaar Kemal Gökçeli, was Turkey’s best-known twentieth century novelist and a frequent candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature; his works have been translated into dozens of languages. He received numerous awards, including an honorary degree from the University of Strasbourg, and was named a commander of France’s Legion of Honor. Kemal was born in 1923 to Kurdish parents in a tiny hamlet called Hemite in south central Turkey. He early became acquainted with the dangers and brutality of life in that region. On his mother’s side all the men lived by banditry. At the age of five, he lost one eye in an incident when his father, Sadk Gökçeli, was killed while praying in a mosque, and a year later he developed a speech impediment that lasted until he was twelve.{$S[A]Gkeli, Ya{scedil}ar Kemal[Gokceli, Yasar Kemal];Kemal, Yashar}

After attending the equivalent of eight grades in local schools, Kemal took on employment of various sorts; he worked in construction, on a farm, as a cobbler’s assistant, and as a substitute teacher. Along the way he developed a lively appreciation for the popular traditions and local lore of the area. His first published work was a collection of folk elegies, Aịtlar. His political leanings came under suspicion among police and local notables; he was arrested in 1950, and while he was in prison an unsuccessful attempt was made on his life. When he was later brought to trial, on charges of disseminating Communist literature, he was acquitted. To avoid further embroilments with the authorities, he left for Istanbul and began to use the name Yashar Kemal. There in 1952 he married Thilda Serrero, who later became his translator into English. One son was born to them, Rasit. Before becoming a full-time writer in 1963, Kemal worked for eleven years as a reporter for the Cumhuriyet. As a writer for this respected and influential newspaper, his reports were widely read, and many were later compiled in collections of his journalism. During this time his short fiction attracted interest as well.

For a time Kemal was a member of the central committee of the Turkish Labor Party, and in the 1960’s he was editor of the Marxist weekly Ant. He was imprisoned no fewer than twenty times, mostly for his leftist convictions, and he was, in his own words, tortured “a great deal,” as evidenced by deep scars just above his left knee. In 1994 Kemal faced renewed difficulties after making an accusation in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel that his government was systematically oppressing the country’s fifteen million Kurds in the southeast.

The reception accorded Kemal’s first novel, Memed, My Hawk, placed him among leading practitioners of his craft in Turkey. The work was an immense popular success and became the basis of a film directed by Peter Ustinov. In 1956 Kemal was awarded the prestigious Varlk Prize for it. The novel also brought him international recognition after it was translated into about twenty-five languages. In the story, which includes youthful romance, official corruption, and heroic banditry, the protagonist, Memed, is moved single-handedly to carry out extraordinary acts of defiance and retribution against village authorities whose brutal acts would otherwise have gone unanswered. As a result he becomes the object of respect and indeed adulation among the common people; in the end, Memed settles scores with the most dangerous, and devious, of their opponents by boldly shooting him dead in the man’s own house. As an effort that combines elements of realism and folklore, there are explicit distinctions drawn between brigands of a wanton, self-serving sort, who are encountered at intervals, and those who, like Memed, are motivated by a concern for social justice. Further adventures of the author’s leading character have been featured in sequels that continue the saga of Memed’s confrontation with unjust and rapacious people.

Kemel depicts other aspects of...

(The entire section is 1,689 words.)