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Yashar Kemal Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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...

(The entire section is 2,905 words.)