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Yasar Kemal, My Hawk

by Dmetri KAKMI


Few writers have so identified themselves with their own country as Yasar Kemal. After reading his prodigious output one is first aware of the land and then of legend. Where one ends the other begins, and at some point fuse into one so that the land becomes legendary, and Yasar Kemal its reigning hawk.

Yasar Kemal was born in 1922 in a village on the Chukurova plains. After a basic education, he became an agricultural labourer and factory worker who took it upon himself to champion workers’ rights. After a brief stint as a journalist, he published his first novel, the award-winning Memed, My Hawk in 1955.

For over three decades Kemal has identified himself to such an extent with the unforgiving yet sublime Taurus Mountains, the Chukurova plains and its toiling people that the one word that best describes his work is perhaps lapidary. As the word suggests, Kemal is elegant and concise in both word and wisdom. He is the emblem of a lost but not yet forgotten Anatolia in the most profound sense.

Fact and folklore intermarry in Yasar Kemal. His best work is about old agrarian Turkey giving way to a new modern industrial nation. The clash of past with present, the disintegration of village life and the expansion of the city are all part of his oeuvre. As progress marches on, it devours the traditional village, isolated in time and place, routing out the little people whose only recourse to justice has long been through self-administered vengeance.

Out of that struggle rise the heroes and heroines that come to dominate the landscape. The outlaw, the bandit, the street urchin, the headstrong woman, the matriarch, is Kemal’s principle protagonist. The aga, master, lord, landowner, is the symbol of the immoveable mountain of absolute power and injustice that must be overcome.

And at one time or another they must all journey from impossible heights to the lowest depths. Rarely do they return, and even then it is only in song and remembrance. For a time their names are carved on rock, until wind and rain wash away all traces.

Yasar Kemal is a hyper-realist. He knows that in order for truth to reveal itself it must be exaggerated. His prose turns characters into symbols of themselves; their actions are at once godly and achingly, recognisably mortal. His unique talent is in not losing sight of a shared humanity even for a minute.

In this virgin territory that Kemal has carved out for himself, Greek tragedy clashes with pragmatic social realism to create a stark poetry. But in the moral universe that he creates, there is more of Euripides than of Homer. By creating such an exquisite sense of place, the vastness and grandeur of Anatolia, Kemal roots his characters’ wildly vacillating behaviour to the land. They belong to it and it, in turn, breathes through them. They are children of Dionysus, the men and women who walk across his pages. They can be tender as trees or as savage and lonesome as crags in the snowy mountains.

Perhaps that is why many city dwelling, middle-class Turks are embarrassed by Yasar Kemal’s international reputation, and prefer to be represented by more progressive writers like Orhan Pamuk. They believe that the man that enthralled them with The Wind from the Plain is a reminder of a primitive past that stubbornly lingers in parts of remote Anatolia, at odds with attempts to modernise at all costs.

Yasar Kemal’s message is justice and reverence. Justice for all is an eternal paradigm. And reverence for the past is a way to the future. By listening to the old master, Turkey and indeed the world is reminded of how vast is our imaginative range and how enriching our historic past.

- . -

Related links on the LM
- Traditional Themes in the Novels of Yasar KEMAL
by Osman SAHIN


Dmetri KAKMI is an essayist and critic. He works for Penguin Books Australia as an editor.

© Dmetri Kakmi, 2003

This issue is dedicated to the Peace Process of SRI LANKA & prominent Turkish author Yasar KEMAL

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