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...

(The entire section is 2905 words.)