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As Big as Mount Ararat | The Nation

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As Big as Mount Ararat

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If native curiosity and place of birth led Kemal to appreciate culture's depths, it was petty commerce that introduced him to culture's breadth and communicability. One day a peddler came to Kemal's village, selling goods on credit. In order to keep track of his debits, the merchant recorded them in a notebook. That was Kemal's first encounter with writing. He was intrigued but didn't think much of it till some weeks later, when the police killed a local brigand who had been one of his father's bodyguards. Kemal composed an elegy and sang it for his mother. She had discouraged his hobby as unbefitting his lineage; but on this occasion she praised him. Her plaudits proved fleeting, however, for on the next day Kemal was distraught to realize that he'd forgotten his composition. He resolved immediately to learn writing.

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Marc Edward Hoffman
Marc Edward Hoffman is an American writer based in Istanbul.

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In 1941 or thereabouts (again, the date is impossible to pin down) Kemal abandoned his formal studies—he was one year shy of completing middle school—and found a job in the library in the city of Adana. The arrangement suited him fine. The library was never crowded, so he could read throughout the day, and the manager let him stay at night and continue reading for as long as he wanted. The shelves were well stocked, since the government of Ismet Inönü had just established a committee for the translation of world literature, which was publishing volumes at a furious pace. "I became a book worm and devoured everything," Kemal writes, "Homer, the Greek classics and the classics of the nineteenth century." He was especially taken with Stendhal, Cervantes and Chekhov, whom he considers his "master."

Kemal soon fell in with communist circles in Adana. He began reading everything about the ideology he could find—which, as it turned out, wasn't all that much. Practically everything had been forbidden, so works circulated from hand to hand, often in the form of typed copies; and some of Marx's seminal works weren't available at all. "Under these conditions," he writes, "socialism came to us by means of the oral tradition—from master to apprentice. During this apprenticeship we learned many erroneous notions."

It isn't clear what those errors consisted of, exactly. I asked Kemal to clarify, and he disowned the statement. But it's obvious that his brand of Marxism is highly unorthodox. Such idiosyncrasy is typical of Turkey, where communism has often been more of a romantic than a systematic creed, with Marx's tenets emphasized, rejected or blithely ignored, according to taste or conscience. Even so, in Kemal's case the romanticism and selectivity are acute. The subjects of collectivism, economics and class conflict don't quicken his pulse. And though he sometimes talks about capitalism bringing an end to the feudal order in Cukurova, he isn't particularly interested in Marx's historical or sociological schemata; he's just weaving Marxist terminology into his own observations of the countryside. Indeed, he rejects outright Marx's argument that capitalism is a necessary stage of development; for him it's "a wilderness we can do without." In his mind, communism is all about "freedom of thought and...the liberation of the individual." He rejects violence of any kind: people shouldn't be killed, he tells me, "even if they're capitalists."

Kemal hardly dipped into Marxist literary theory during his long spells of reading in Adana, nor did he think it right to let politics dictate art. It was morally and aesthetically wrong, he writes, to distort "the novel even for a just cause." Kemal's cool attitude toward Marxist prescriptions allowed him to nurse grand literary ambitions: namely, "to create a new kind of narrative, beginning with a whole new language." If Turkey had anything to offer world culture, he writes, it was the fact that the peoples of Anatolia "were still living with freshness and intensity the oral traditions that had been forgotten in the West." He wanted to find some way to tap those traditions and rework them for the modern novel, in order to address contemporary issues in a timeless way. (This is the converse of Pamuk's approach, which is to address the timeless—and frankly banal—question of whether Turkey is Western or Eastern in brazenly contemporary ways. To be fair, Pamuk's approach is sometimes brilliantly inventive, as in The Black Book, from 1990, in which he employs Joycean puns and puzzles, as well as riffs on dervish esoterica, to turn an otherwise pedestrian mystery tale into a meditation on identity.) The problem for Kemal wasn't only figuring out how to make a literature of metric declamation work in prose, on the page; it was that the written language was impoverished, conservative and closed to change.

During the Ottoman period, Anatolia had been a world apart. Despite its geographic centrality within the empire, it was culturally marginal. Its rich dialect and oral literature hardly penetrated the cities, where written literature developed under the influence of Persian, Arabic and, in the nineteenth century, French. By 1920 the written language, which was for all intents and purposes mutually indistinguishable from what was spoken in Anatolia, consisted of roughly 75 percent loan words and 25 percent Turkish ones. For Atatürk and other like-minded reformers in the new republic, that ratio presented a problem: it was fine for a polyglot empire to have a mongrel tongue, but a nation-state needed its own "pure" one. They therefore embarked on an ambitious linguistic revision, purging the language of loan words as far as possible and adopting a new script based on the Latin to replace the old Arabic one. The revamped language may have served a political purpose, but it was stilted and sterile, inadequate for literature. Kemal's goal as he began writing, he told Bosquet, was "to combine the potential of the living, rich Turkish of the Cukurova"—where the reforms hadn't really penetrated, because most of the people were illiterate—"with the written language of the cities."

As it happened, it wasn't until Kemal relocated to Turkey's largest city that he was able to realize his linguistic and literary ambitions. In early 1951, with the help of a friend, he landed a job in Istanbul at the newspaper Cumhuriyet as its Anatolian correspondent. That proved to be the turning point in his life. Since the authorities in Cukurova had constantly harassed him, and even imprisoned him for several months on charges of spreading communism, he took the pen name Yashar Kemal to throw the police off his trail before he headed east on assignment. He traveled for a few months, filing features on life in the hinterlands. Unbeknown to him, his articles' innovative and richly descriptive language caused a sensation. None of his forebears had his knack for description or his felicity with natural—and unpatronizing—demotic expression, which brought his subjects to life on the page. When he returned to Istanbul, he found that he was a minor celebrity. The police soon learned his real identity, but by then his fame afforded him a measure of protection. Suddenly, doors began to open. In 1952 he published a book of short stories, Yellow Heat. Three years later came his first novel.

Memed, My Hawk is the story of Slim Memed, a poor but steely village lad who runs afoul of the local aga, or lord, and flees to the mountains to become a brigand, and eventually a legendary folk hero in the mold of Robin Hood or Billy the Kid. The plot is deceptively simple: it's essentially the modern retelling of the oral epics Kemal had fallen in love with as a boy. But that simplicity belies the novel's feats. Woven around the story of Slim Memed are a series of finely wrought set pieces and extended observations peppered with wry comments about a range of subjects: the insularity, but sadly not the self-sufficiency, of Anatolian village life; the physical transformation of the countryside, and the psychological transformation of its inhabitants, that ensue from the adoption of freehold and large-scale commercial farming; the rapacity of the provincial nouveaux riches, who are restrained neither by dying custom nor the distant state.

In the hands of a lesser writer, modern themes like these would hang awkwardly on the staid structure of epic; but in Kemal's, the combination works. Moving deftly between realistic and incantatory modes, Kemal throws each into illuminating contrast. For example, just as the reader is lulled into a sense of timelessness by the novel's folk-epic rhythms ("I came and saw the bolted door,/Her black hair plaited all with gold..."), a finely observed slice of reality (such as shoe soles "cut from the rubber tire of a car") will intrude with jarring effect. Conversely, just as the accumulation of details threatens to undercut the story's epic sweep, Kemal will lapse into the villagers' collective voice. In one instance he describes how, during battle, Memed would turn into "a giant of a man" who could wield "a huge pine log in his hand" and whom bullets couldn't harm, only to resume his normal proportions afterward ("One minute he was tall as a poplar, then small again"). By employing such sequences, Kemal neatly illustrates how legends—such as Slim Memed's—arise from the confusion of lived experience.

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