»You son of a bitch, you're a traitor, trying to buy me out with American money! There's no way I'll leave the Workers' Party. Get the fuck out of here, and don't speak to me ever again!« He waves his arm dismissively, with a hint of menace, his one eye pinched in such theatrical disgust that for an instant it resembles the shriveled, sunken flesh that fills the socket beside it. Then a sliver of silence. He sits there, still and staring, trying to gauge my reaction. Suddenly Yashar Kemal erupts in laughter. Full-throated, full-bodied, convulsive laughter. Now his eye is wide and shining. Forty years on, rebuffing an invitation to fortune and fame in the United States strikes Turkey's greatest novelist as nothing short of hilarious.
Kemal and I are sitting in his Istanbul apartment, watching the sun set across the Bosphorus, and he's recalling how, in the 1960s, a CIA agent — who till then had been a friend — suggested that his books might be more popular in the United States if he quit the Turkish Workers' Party, a Marxist organization for which he was the leading propagandist. As his re-enactment indicates, Kemal took offense at the suggestion, and huffily refused. The agent says that he never meant to dictate Kemal's politics. Indeed, he doesn't recall the incident at all, and seems genuinely dismayed at the author's recollection of events. (There's no denying that Kemal is a raconteur.) But the stubborn fact is that, for whatever reason, Kemal has never gotten the kind of recognition in the New World that he has in the Old, where for several decades he was considered a front-runner for the Nobel Prize.
Nowadays Kemal has largely been forgotten, at least in the West, where he's been eclipsed by Orhan Pamuk. When Pamuk received the Nobel in 2006, the Swedish Academy hailed him for transforming Istanbul into »an indispensable literary territory, equal to Dostoyevsky's St. Petersburg, Joyce's Dublin, or Proust's Paris«. That's a fair judgment, but the same could be said for Kemal's portrayal of the Cukurova plains, where most of his works are set, and which critics have rightly compared to William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County and Gabriel García Márquez's Macondo. Many Turks argue that Pamuk benefited from a stroke of luck, or rather a gust of political correctness, when the academy honored him as a rebuke to the Turkish government for putting him on trial the year before, on charges of »publicly denigrating Turkish identity«, after he'd referred to the massacre of »30,000 Kurds and 1 million Armenians" in an interview with Das Magazin. That, too, is a fair point, but many other writers — including Kemal — have been prosecuted under the Turkish penal code for their impolitic statements about Kurds or Armenians. But none of those writers drew attention to themselves, as Pamuk did, by falsely boasting, »almost nobody [else] dares mention it«.
If Pamuk is Turkish literature's face — or at least the face that it turns to the West, and that the West finds most flattering — then Kemal is Turkish literature's heart and conscience. While Pamuk may speak for members of Istanbul's urbane, secular elite, it is not at all clear that they, as a class, speak for the whole of Turkey. Indeed, the country's past several election cycles would seem to indicate otherwise: it's the pious arrivistes who are in charge. To really understand Turkey, one must try to understand them. And while Yashar Kemal doesn't speak on their behalf—he is, after all, a communist, and religion plays little role in his novels—he at least writes about the social circumstances in which they, or rather their constituency, have toiled and grown. Grounded in the soil of rural, south-central Turkey, where Kemal was born and raised, his greatest novels, such as his classic, Mehmed, My Hawk (1955), focus on peasants' and former nomads' struggles to adapt to a changing world. Writing in an epic, almost mythic mode, with characters and themes derived from folk tales and the songs of Anatolian bards—but with an attention to physical detail and social relations that recalls Tolstoy — Kemal depicts the profound disruption of village life brought on by mechanization, market economics and the wholesale transformation of the countryside. His oeuvre traces Turkey's remarkable evolution over the past century from a multiethnic, polyglot, post-Ottoman rump state — one without a clear identity or natural cohesion — into a modern, if still rather disunited, nation.
The man who would come to be known as Yashar Kemal was born Kemal Sadik Gökceli in Hemite, a village in Cukurova (»the hollow plain«), one of Turkey's most fertile agricultural regions, probably in 1923 — the year of the republic's founding. (It's impossible to know the exact date of his birth because there's no record. To this day, many births in the Turkish countryside go unrecorded.) His parents were Kurds who had fled eastern Anatolia, where they were landowners, during the region's occupation by the Russian army in 1915. His father's uncle was the last chief of the Luvan tribe; by the standards of the time and place, his family was wealthy. The village where they settled consisted of about sixty houses, simple adobe structures with thatched roofs and dirt floors packed and covered with kilims. The other residents of the village were descendants of Turkoman nomads who had been settled there in 1865 after their rebellion was crushed by the Ottoman state. Nevertheless, Kemal never felt out of place. He was more fluent in Turkish than Kurdish, and knew nothing of his parents' culture but songs and epics. The other villagers »didn't make any distinction between us and them«, he told Alain Bosquet, the French poet, »and they never saw our difference as a stigma«. (Bosquet and Kemal's correspondence, collected in Yasar Kemal on His Life and Art, translated from the French by Eugene Lyons Hébert and Barry Tharaud and published in 1999, constitutes the closest thing in English to a biography of Kemal.)
All the men on his mother's side of the family had been bandits and outlaws. Few »died in bed of old age«, Kemal writes. »Except for her father, all died violently by bullets.« His mother was »more than a little proud« of that fact and boasted of it often. As a result, Kemal developed a romantic attachment to the type. He was especially taken with the story of his Uncle Mahiro, »the most famous outlaw in eastern Anatolia, Iran and the Caucasus«, whose corpse, it was said, was found to contain four hearts — such was his bravery. Epic songs were soon celebrating Mahiro as a folk hero and people's champion. Years later, echoes of them would appear in Kemal's novels.
On Kemal's third or fourth birthday, one of his uncles was gutting a sheep that had been sacrificed to celebrate the occasion and lost control of the knife. It slashed Kemal across the brow and cut deeply into his right eye, which had to be removed. About a year later, he was praying with his father in the village mosque when Yusuf, his adopted brother — who was older and, apparently, insanely jealous — stormed in and fatally stabbed his father through the heart. Afterward, Kemal's mother grew obsessed with vengeance. For years she insisted that Kemal kill Yusuf, playing upon his sense of filial piety and family honor. He refused repeatedly, to her great disappointment.
The profligate spending of Kemal's paternal uncle soon exhausted the family's wealth. »By the time I was eight years old«, Kemal writes, »the splendors of the past were only distant memories, and my family was among the poorest in the village.« Nevertheless, his childhood was »indescribably rich. Every creature in nature, every color, every smell, drove me wild with joy, as if I were in ecstasy«. Kemal took equal delight in the region's cultural riches. »My childhood playground was a field full of ruins that dated to antiquity«, he writes. Even his humble little village's spring was »decorated by a stele with Hittite inscriptions, in which a long-dead king boasted of subduing bandits in the region. The amazing continuity of Cukurova's outlaw tradition is not lost on Kemal. Neither are its innumerable other layers of cultural sedimentation. He delights in recounting all the civilizations and historical personages that have passed through Cukurova — or as Homer knew it, Cilicia — from ancient times, through the birth of Christianity, to the Ottoman era and after.
Besides the bounties of nature and the remnants of ruined civilizations, Kemal fell in love with the ancient — but at that time still vigorous — tradition of epic poetry and song. The region surrounding Hemite was »one of the areas where the Turkish language attains its greatest wealth«, he writes. »There, every woman is a poet, and a local woman who can't compose an elegy is considered deficient or retarded. One couldn't conceive of things being otherwise.« Likewise, »it was impossible that a man or a woman of this region would not have known at least one poem by Karacaoglan«, the sixteenth-century bard who hailed from the region. »Those who didn't know any were considered simpleminded.« Following in Karacaoglan's path were »hundreds of poets and singers of epic songs« who »wandered the Cukurova plain« down to Kemal's day. Kemal was as attracted to them as he was to the heroes of whom they sang, and when he was 8 he began to compose his own poems. Soon his ballads »were on everyone's lips. Everywhere I was ›Asik Kemal‹ — ›Kemal the Bard‹«.
This article appeared in the July 12, 2010 edition of The Nation.