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||Yasar Kemal (Yasar Kemal Gökçeli) 1922-2015|
Prolific Turkish novelist, short-story writer, and essayist, one of the last great traditional storytellers, whose novel İnce Memed (1955, Memed, My Hawk) made him world famous. The book, which had several sequels, depicts a conflict between poor tenant farmers and rural landwoners, the Aghas. This struggle creates a young hero, a kind of mixture of Jesse James and Che Guevara, who becomes a famous outlaw and a legend of South Anatolia.
"People have always created their own worlds of myths and dreams, perpetuating their lives in those imaginary worlds. At times of duress, they have created more such worlds, which have given them haven and facilitated their lives. In their transition from one darkness to another, having acquired the consciousness of death, they have realized their lives and the joy of living in the world of myths and dreams they have created." (Yashar Kemal in his acceptance speech of the 1997 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, tr. Talat Salt Halman)
Yasar Kemal was born Yasar Kemal Gökçeli in Adana, in autumn 1922, into a family of well-to-do landlords. His parents came originally from the shores of Lake Van, on the eastern frontiers of Turkey. After a long trek on foot, they settled on the South Anatolian plain of Cilicia, a region populated by big landowners, poor peasants, and the Kurds. This rocky and hot landscape of the Taurus Mountains served as the background for several of Kemal's stories.
At the time of Yasar's birth, his father Sadi Kemal was already 50, his mother Nigar was only 17. Her family descended from the Kizikan tribe. Nigar's brother Mayro was a famous outlaw, who led a short but adventurous life. He was killed when he was 25. Mayro provided the model for Kemal's rebellious heroes.
Kemal lost his right eye early in his
childhood in a accident. When Kemal was five he saw his
father killed by his adoptive son Yusuf while praying at the
mosque. Due to this traumatic experience, he developed a stutter,
but eventually managed to cure himself by chanting folk
songs. To her mother's disappointment, he refused to kill Yusuf as
After studying two years at a secondary school, Kemal ended his formal education. His four sisters died and Kemal was left alone to take care of his mother. In his teens and twenties Kemal worked in odd jobs. He was a cottonpicker, farmhand, construction foreman, clerk, cobbler's helper, and substitute teacher. For a period he was employed by the city library Adana. He read voraciously, and became acquainted with Greek classics, and Stendhal, Cervantes and Chechov. During these years Kemal adopted knowledge in Turkish folklore, too. Following the military service, he worked for a gas company. His first book, published in 1943, was a compilation of folk elegies, which he had collected in his region. Kemal also wrote short stories and published poems in a local magazine in Adana and small magazines elsewhere.
Kemal's experiences among peasants and workers made him a devoted defender of the underprivileged. After saving enough money, he bought a typewriter and started to work as a public petition writer. In 1950 Kemal was arrested on charges of disseminating Communist propaganda but he was acquitted at the trial that took place a few months later. However, it was not the last time Kemal would be held in prison. Early in his career he had joined the Turkish Workers' party and was subsequently branded as a Communist he was harassed by landowners and police. When his colleague, the famous poet Nazim Hikmet, escaped to the Soviet Union after political persecution, Kemal chose France his second home country. Later Kemal's works were translated into French by Hikmet's widow. In the late 1970s, the Kemals moved to Sweden, where they spent two years. During this period he wrote The Sea-Crossed Fisherman (1978), The Birds Have Also Gone (1978), and the first part of his autobiography, Kimsecik (1980). All these works described Istanbul.
In 1952 Kemal married Thilda Serrero, they had one son. Before settling permanently in Istanbul in 1951, Kemal had visited the city only a few times. The first time was when he participated in a swimming contest. His specialty was the 1500 meter freestyle.
Upon joining the staff of the leading Istanbul daily, Cumhuriyet, he took the pseudonym Yasar Kemal (literally, Kemal the Survivor or Kemal who lives). Before becoming a columnist and special-feature writer, he worked as a roving reporter. One of his most famous article series was about the homeless children living in the streets of the city.
Kemal left Cumhuriyet in 1962 - actually he was fired most probably due to his political activities - and devoted himself entirely to writing. He edited the Marxist weekly Ant and was a member of the Central Committee of Turkish Labour Party. When he was imprisoned in 1966, the British Socialist Member of Parliament Lena Jeger pleaded for his release in the Guardian. Again in 1971 he was held in prison - this time twenty-six days - for political views. His wife Thilda was in prison for a much longer time. In 1995 Kemal was imprisoned for an article that condemned the government's oppression of the Kurdish minority, and offered support to the Kurdish Workers' Party. After Thilda's death in 2001, Kemal married Ayse Semiha Baban, a lecturer at Bilgi University in Istanbul.
Kemal's first and best-known novel, Memed my Hawk, was set on the Chukurova plain, Kemal's world of drama and tales, which has been compared to William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County and Gabriel García Márquez's Macondo. However, Kemal can also be linked to the tradition of social realism and its great practitioners, such as Honoré de Balzac, Stendhal, Maxim Gorky, and Mikhail Sholokhov. "Traditionally and temperamentally," Kemal has said, "I feel drawn to the art of Homer and Cervantes."
The protagonist of Memed my Hawk, Ince Memed, runs away from
his village's tyrannical ruler Abdi Agha as a boy, but he is soon found
and beaten. On the road to escape, he coins a new name for himself,
Kara Mistik. Later in his youth he tries to escape to the
mountains with his beloved Hatche, whom the Agha has promised to his
nephew. Surrounded in their hiding place, Memed kills the nephew but
manages only to wound the landlord. He joins a group of bandits, Hatche
is imprisoned, and Memed's mother dies. Again Memed tries to kill his
archenemy who is pulling all strings to crush Memed, already a
legendary figure. After visiting the prison, where Hatche is being
held, Memed arranges her escape. She gives birth to their son, but dies
in a shooting with the police. A prisoner of his own fame, Memed is not
able to accept amnesty he has been offered, but chooses instead
revenge and disappears into tales.
Although Memed, the Anatolian Robin Hood, is the hero, the real winners are the poor peasants, who refuse his rebellious individualism, but learn to fight against injustice together. Coincidentally, this was also the conclusion of Akira Kurosawa's famous film Seven Samurai (1954). However, Kemal do not end his novel with an uplifting message about hope. The collective spirit of the villagers fades away when Abdi Agha turns out to be still alive. It took Kemal 39 years to finish the story of Memed. In the fourth volume, which came out in 1987, the hero was 25, Kemal over 60.
Memed my Hawk, translated into English in 1961 by Edouard Roditi, was a bestseller. From Kemal's second novel, Orta Direk (1963, The Wind from the Plain), the author's wife Thilda Kemal translated several of his major works into English. The Wind from the Plain, a story of a peasant family traveling in search of work, is considered one of Kemal's best works. Üç Anadolu Efsanesi (1967) Ağrıdağı Efsanesi (1970, The Legend of Ararat), and Binboğalar Efsanesi (1971, The Legend of the Thousand Bulls) were based on Turkey's folk-tales. In the 1970s Kemal also wrote about the coastal towns in Al Gözüm Seyreyle Salih (1976, The Saga of a Seagull), a poetic story of a boy who tries to save a seagull with a broken wing, and Kuşlar da Gitti (1978, The Birds Have Also Gone), set in a fishing village. Salman the Solitary (1980), about rivalry and jealousy between two brothers, was based on the death of Kemal's father.
Kemal's several awards include the Varlik Prize (1956), the Ilhan
Iskender Award (1966), the Internatonal Theatre Festival price (1966),
the Madarali award (1973), the Foreign book proze (1979), Cono del Duca
prize (1982), the Sedet Simavi Foundation award (1985), and the Peace
Prize of the German Book Trade (1997). After his colleague Orhan Pamuk
won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2006, Kemal sent his
congratulations, saying, "I'm so happy that you got the award that you
had deserved. I believe that you will write new novels with the same
passion." Kemal died on February 28, 2015, in an Istanbul hospital following respiratory and organ failure.
For further reading: Liberating Narratives of Yasar Kemal: The Other Face of the Mountain Trilogy by Cem Bico (thesis, 2006); Yasar Kemal: Bir gecisi donemi romancisi by Nedim Gürsel (2000); Yasar Kemal on His Life and Art (translated from the French by Eugene Lyons Hébert and Barry Tharaud, 1999); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 2, ed. Steven R. Serafin (1999); 'Yashar Kemal' by Imre Szeman, in Encyclopedia of the Novel, Vol.1, ed. Paul Schelling (1998); Im Schatten der verlorenen Liebe by Mehmed Uzun (1998); Contemporary World Authors, ed. Tracy Chevalier (1993); Kemal issue of Edebiyat: A Journal of Middle Eastern Literatures, V/1-2 (1980); Paul Theroux on They Burn the Thistles, in New York Times Book Review, 18 June (1978); K. Pollitt on The Undying Grass, in New York Times Book Review, 18 June (1978); World Authors 1950-1970, ed. John Wakeman (1975); R. Blythe on Iron Earth, Copper Sky, in Listener, 13 June (1974)