Yashar Kemal Kemal, Yashar (Vol. 14) - Essay

Yaşar Kemal Gökçeli


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kemal, Yashar 1922–

Kemal is a Turkish novelist and journalist. He is Turkey's most famous novelist, both at home and abroad, as well as an outspoken political activist. The material for his novels is drawn from his native rural area, and is presented in a forceful yet lyrical prose style. He has often been mentioned as a possible candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

TalâT Sait Halman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


In the 1950s Turkish fiction moved out of the centers of urban culture into rural Anatolia, giving rise to an impressive output which is often referred to as the "Village Novel." The practitioners of this brave new genre are, unlike earlier pioneers in the field, writers who were born and reared in poverty-stricken villages. Their work has the poignancy of personal agony experienced during their formative years.

The leading figure of the "Village Novel" is Yashar Kemal. (p. 181)

The Wind from the Plain … is actually the Turkish village novel par excellence: It typifies the strongest features as well as some of the basic defects of this genre. The narration is fluent and forceful, dialogue crisp and colorful, and the plot engrossing. Its principal failing is also typical: The characters, while serving admirably as stock-types, are devoid of individual traits and lack psychological motivation except for the pressures of poverty.

The Turkish title Ortadirek means "mainstay" and symbolizes Yasar Kemal's faith in the peasant as the central force of Turkey's future. The Wind from the Plain lionizes the dauntless spirit of the peasant to survive. (p. 182)

Talât Sait Halman, "World Literature in Review: 'The Wind from the Plain'," in Books Abroad (copyright 1970 by the University of Oklahoma Press),...

(The entire section is 508 words.)

Peter Prince

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A sure sense of setting is certainly one of the strengths of the Turkish writer Yashar Kemal. At all times in his funny and tragic story of a peasant who is raised up against his will to be a saint [Iron Earth, Copper Sky], he makes the reader vitally aware of the background—the mountains, the steppe, the huddled village, the forest. Indeed, these are not really 'background' at all: they are in there in the thick of it, conditioning events, limiting human action, rewarding some, killing others. Together with the elements, they constitute practically the novel's main character…. [Iron Earth, Copper Sky is a] title that gets its priorities just about right.

Peter Prince, "Intramural," in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 87, No. 2257, June 21, 1974, p. 894.∗

Paul Theroux

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[There is a native witness of Turkey] who, in the half-dozen books of his that have been translated, has depicted his country with a close attention to detail and yet with a majestic, almost epic sweep.

Yashar Kemal has been compared to Thomas Hardy and Tolstoy, and has several times been short-listed for the Nobel Prize. This is interesting news, no doubt, but hardly illuminating. The author with whom Kemal feels a special kinship … is William Faulkner. This strange pairing-off becomes less strange once you know how closely the cotton-growing plains of Chukurova in South Anatolia resemble those in Yoknapatawpha County, and how similar are the blood-feuds, rural past-times, barn burnings, old time religion and incidents of local heroism….

[Kemal's] first novel, "Memed, My Hawk" achieved enormous celebrity when it was published in English in 1955. He has written many since, and though they appear regularly in translation, he has not received the critical acclaim or wide readership he deserves in America. He is revered in Turkey and read avidly in Sweden, France and in the Soviet Union, where his novels are—mistakenly, I think—assumed to be the result of some great access of Marxist indignation.

His newest novel to be translated here is, happily, a sequel to "Memed, My Hawk" and indeed it was published in Turkish as its second part. The title [is] "They Burn the Thistles."… (p. 11)

The landscape, the seasons, the wildlife, the flowers: Kemal works on a huge canvas but there is interest in every inch of it. This novel is a worthy successor to "Memed, My Hawk" and ought to send readers swiftly to "The Legend of the Thousand Bulls" "Anatolian Tales" or "The Wind From the Plain."… I doubt that anyone who reads "They Burn the Thistles" will hesitate in seeking these out and concluding that Kemal is an important literary figure. (p. 40)

Paul Theroux, "Turkish Delight," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 10, 1977, pp. 11, 40.

Talat Sait Halman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Undying Grass is Kemal's eighth book of fiction to become available in English translation…. It is the third and last volume of his trilogy, which started with Ortadirek (The Wind from the Plain; 1960)…. The second part of the trilogy, Yer Demir Gök Bakir (1963), is also available in English: Iron Earth, Copper Sky. The concluding volume, Ölmez Otu (1969), now makes its appearance in English under the title of The Undying Grass, which connotes both the reference to the generic "everlasting plant" and the book's central theme—the indomitable spirit of the Anatolian to survive and to endure. (p. 676)

[The plot of The Undying Grass] is one of Kemal's most elaborate and complex story lines ever. The author has described it as the tale "of a people in the throes of adversity who make up a dream world for themselves and try to escape into it from the hard realities of their existence." (pp. 676-77)

The Undying Grass, with its epic power and dazzling insights into human drama, ranks as one of Yashar Kemal's masterworks and underscores the immense strength of his fictional art. (p. 677)

Talat Sait Halman, "World Literature in Review: 'The Undying Grass'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 4, Autumn, 1977, pp. 676-77.

Larry Rohter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

No one knows the world of the Turkish peasant better than Yashar Kemal. In a half dozen novels and collections of short stories, he has been remarkably successful in making their way of life comprehensible to the Western reader, writing with respect, affection and understanding about their customs and beliefs and the hardships they face.

Something is definitely awry, though, in The Undying Grass, the final volume of Kemal's trilogy of life in an Anatolian village called Yalak. The gruff, earthy characters, with names like Spellbound Ahmet, Home-Leave Memet and Gooey Apti, who peopled earlier Kemal novels, are still there, and their surroundings are described with the same loving detail, but this time they sound different. Their speech, colorful and coarse, has suddenly become awkward and artificial.

It is hard to tell who is responsible for this disappointing turnabout, Kemal or his translator. In all likelihood, the latter is probably the culprit: The Undying Grass has not exactly been rendered into the most idiomatic English….

So irritating is the stilted dialogue that it is nearly impossible to appreciate the intriguing tale Kemal proposes to tell. His preferred themes of social and political protest and exploitation, in which the line between good and evil is always clearly drawn, have been muted here, enabling him to write with unaccustomed subtlety about another timeless problem: man's need for heroes, created out of thin air if necessary.

Larry Rohter, "'The Undying Grass'," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1978, The Washington Post), April 30, 1978, p. E4.

Katha Pollitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Yashar Kemal's novels, set in the backward villages of his native Taurus Mountains, have an abundance of … exotic verisimilitude. Perhaps there are other reasons for his wide popularity in Turkey …, but for American readers the fascination of his novels lies largely in his depiction of a way of life as utterly alien to us as life on Mars. (p. 14)

Yashar Kemal has been compared with Tolstoy, a burden no one deserves to bear, and has been praised for the epic quality of his novels. I don't know about "epic"—among reviewers it seems to mean something like "a tale of simplified passions set among primitives," which leaves any genuine epic out in the cold—but Mr. Kemal, who grew up in a village much like Yalak, gives a much more astringent picture of peasant life than the aristocratic Tolstoy. His villagers possess neither earthy wisdom nor natural piety—nor, one might add, class consciousness. They are gullible, cruel and calculating; their feuds and quarrels are so hotheaded as to seem positively whimsical. If they are as tightly knit as a family, they are also as mutually destructive as only close relatives can be. Ignorance and oppression, Mr. Kemal seems to be saying, drive them to turn on one another. And yet they are a spirited bunch, capable of great exertions, imbued with poetry and myth, and much given to falling in love. Life in Yalak may be grim, but it's never boring.

Yashar Kemal is a devoted admirer of Faulkner, and it shows—in ponderous prose and a penchant for long descriptive passages, as well as in a web of violence and intrigue that would keep Yoknapatawpha County busy for years. As a novel "The Undying Grass" is a bit slow-moving, but as a portrait of a people and a way of life it couldn't be better. It should do much to humanize our patchy and stereotyped picture of the Moslem world. (pp. 14, 37)

Katha Pollitt, "Turkish Trouble," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 18, 1978, pp. 14, 37.

Talat Sait Halman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kușlar da Gitti (The Birds Too Are Gone) stands in contrast to the epic sweep of the huge novels for which … [Kemal] has gained his international reputation. It is short and spare, but it contains, in compact form, almost as a synecdoche, the strengths which have become Yashar Kemal's hallmarks.

The plot and the characters hold a firm grip on the reader's attention for their universal values, although they do not lack the authenticity of the Turkish context. The style is enchantingly lyrical in the narrative passages and fully attuned to the rhythms and colors of the Turkish language in the dialogues. The way Kemal establishes links between scenery and psychological states is nothing short of magical. Like Faulkner, to whom Kemal has always felt akin, he creates a mythic framework, and like much of the best fiction produced by the major Latin American writers in the past twenty years, he provides several levels of literary experience and a concentric metaphorical structure.

Kușlar da Gitti is a masterly evocation of the hopes and frustrations of proletarian life in Turkey's most bustling city, Istanbul. Yashar Kemal's aviary—birds of all colors, birds of prey, captive birds—functions as a metaphor of society. Each episode, as it unravels, offers symptoms of social ills as well as symbols of freedom, happiness and a dignified life. Yashar Kemal's newest is also one of his best quintessential statements about how the common people will ultimately overcome and prevail.

Talat Sait Halman, "World Literature in Review: 'Kușlar da Gitti'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1978 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 52, No. 4, Autumn, 1978, p. 689.

Anthony Thwaite

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The setting of Kemal's "Iron Earth, Copper Sky"] is the southern central part of his country, Antalya, in the foothills of the Taurus Mountains. As Mr. Kemal presents it, it is a timeless, primitive world; though there is brief mention of radios and tractors, the Government in Ankara is unbelievably remote—certainly much more remote than specters, saints, devils, witches and jinns, all of whom are real rather than metaphorical. In fact, the timelessness is such that legends ("in those days there were two holy persons in the world …") float easily into modern village happenings….

Even more than his earlier books, ["Iron Earth, Copper Sky"] comes from and lives on the borderland between fiction and legend, its events drawing on the atmosphere of rumor, superstition, fear and the wild fancies of ignorance that possess his Antalyan villagers….

Mr. Kemal is both closely involved with his characters and capable of remaining ironically detached. "Saints in this atom age? Mehdis in this space age? I'll break every bone in his body. I'll show him how to be a mehdi in the twentieth century," a skeptical army man says; and yet, such is the intensity of Mr. Kemal's other characters that one almost wants to accept Tashbash as a miracle worker. In a society in which a box of matches is a luxury, and in which a man can say without affectation, "I'd rather die than have my honor stained in this village," we are closer to the Middle Ages than the space age. Even the names of Mr. Kemal's characters, in translation, have a fairytale flavor….

The pacing of all this, as distinct from the plotting, is sometimes too leisurely and discursive, perhaps, for Western urban readers—an audience Mr. Kemal has presumably never had in mind. Folklore and oral epic, comic interludes, moments of sexual passion, lyrically "poetic" bits, satirical realism, participants who inexplicably come and go are all intermittently present without being woven together. Clearly, Mr. Kemal is not a naïve writer, but his concentration on a naïve world can betray him into being an odd mixture of simple, solemn and portentous. But at his best one can see why some people have seen him as the Hardy, if not the Tolstoy, of his country. (p. 13)

Anthony Thwaite, "Turkish Delights," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 19, 1979, pp. 13, 21.∗