As Big as Mount Ararat
Memed, My Hawk is a masterpiece, and was immediately recognized as such. Appealing both to critics (who hailed it as the book of the year) and the reading public (who made it Turkey's first native bestseller), it turned Kemal into a bona fide star and instantly cemented his literary reputation. Unesco and the International Federation of PEN Clubs selected it for translation into French and English; other foreign editions followed. In time the novel was translated into forty languages. Kemal had become the first Turkish writer to attract worldwide attention.
The outsize success of Memed, My Hawk had one drawback: it made Kemal a very large target. He had long had trouble with the police, but once the novel became an international phenomenon, "The number of people out for my blood increased," he told a Turkish interviewer. Political opponents began to hound him, and behind the scenes the authorities started pressuring Cumhuriyet either to collar and muzzle him or to set him stray. Things got even worse when, in 1962, he joined the Turkish Workers' Party—the first avowedly Marxist party to win representation in Parliament. The political atmosphere was somewhat freer at that point, owing to the 1960 coup d'état, which led to a much more liberal Constitution, under which the Workers' Party was allowed to operate freely and openly. But the establishment was still incredibly hostile to the far left, which it associated with the Soviet Union. (It's worth remembering that the Truman Doctrine, which kicked off the cold war, was conceived in order to shore up Greece and Turkey against Soviet encroachments after World War II.) As long as Kemal kept a relatively low profile, his celebrity protected him; but once he became politically active, the equation reversed: he drew too much attention to a party deemed a threat. Thus, in 1963 the government pressured Cumhuriyet into firing him, and a film adaptation of Memed, My Hawk, the rights to which were purchased by Twentieth Century Fox in 1964, was killed by government censors.
From 1963 to 1968, Kemal gave a great deal of his time to the party. At first, he served only as head of the propaganda committee (a job that fell to him because the other leaders, all "intellectual Turks," didn't know how to talk to the workers). Later, he also joined the central committee and helped to found and edit the magazine Ant, which served as the party's mouthpiece. Many of his friends within the party were Kurds; under their influence the "Kurdish question" moved toward the center of his thoughts. Then, in 1968, in the aftermath of the Prague Spring, the party split. Its leadership fell to a pro-Soviet faction; Kemal and his friends, who opposed the Soviet invasion, were abruptly sidelined. Even so, when in 1971 another coup ushered in a more repressive order, he was arrested and held in jail for twenty-six days before being released without charge. Thereafter, apart from a few brief and halfhearted flirtations, he forsook politics in order to focus on his art.
Though he remained committed as ever to the left's moral compass, Kemal was glad to step off the stage, because working for the party had had, as he puts it, "a very deleterious effect on my creativity." He became a full-time writer. As a result, his output surged: from 1967 to 1978 he averaged a book a year. In 1968 he finished The Undying Grass, which forms a trilogy with The Wind From the Plain (1960) and Iron Earth, Copper Sky (1963). (Some consider this trilogy, which tells the story of a highland village's journey to and from the plains of Cukurova in order to pick cotton for the summer, his best work.) He also wrote They Burn the Thistles (1969), a sequel to Memed, My Hawk; The Legend of a Thousand Bulls (1971), an examination of how a tribe of Yoruk nomads adapt (or not) to modern society; Murder in the Ironsmith's Market (1974), about how two rural lords cling to their traditional blood vendetta even as changing socioeconomic circumstances render it moot; and To Crush the Serpent (1976), wherein he grapples with an intensely personal topic: the pressure heaped upon a boy, by his family and his village, to kill the person deemed responsible for his father's murder. In 1978 Kemal branched off in a new direction, publishing The Birds Have Also Gone and The Sea-Crossed Fisherman, both of which are set in contemporary Istanbul and both of which examine the struggles of poor folk—transplants from the countryside—to adapt not only to life in the city but also to the mores of a society that's hellbent on material gain and heedless of consumerism's environmental spoliation.
In 1995 Kemal once again captured the world's attention, though this time not for his fiction. Writing in Der Spiegel, he castigated the Turkish government for its treatment of the Kurds. At the time, Turkey was in the midst of a long-running and bloody guerrilla war with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a separatist organization that was fighting to establish an independent Kurdish state. Kemal didn't condone the PKK's terroristic actions or its separatist platform; indeed, he pointed out that most Kurds didn't even want a separate state. But he did write sympathetically of their grievances and argued that Kurds were within their rights to seek independence if they wanted it. That was too much for Turkey's hardliners, who saw to it that Kemal was prosecuted for advocating separatism. Kemal was eventually acquitted, but not before his trial had become a cause célèbre. A group of Turkish intellectuals rallied to his defense and put their names to a book of essays on freedom of speech, which contained Kemal's Der Spiegel article as well as another, even more provocative, one he had published in Index on Censorship. That essay—in which Kemal labeled Turkey's government a "racist, oppressive regime" that had "crushed all the people of Anatolia like a steamroller" and, after yet another coup in 1980, had "made informers of ordinary citizens, created bloody wolf-mouthed confessors, and totally destroyed human morality"—led to a second trial in 1996, in which he was slapped with a suspended twenty-month sentence "for inciting hatred." Afterward, though he continued to publish in Turkey, Kemal's translations slowed to a trickle, and he faded from the international spotlight.
Kerstin Ekman, a novelist and onetime member of the Swedish Academy, has called Kemal "an author as big as Mount Ararat." That seems about right. Even now, in his late 80s, he's a barrel-chested bull of a man, with the personality to match; and his résumé, if anything, is even more imposing. He has published forty books, several of them outstanding and one of them a true classic. But accurate as Ekman's description may be, it's not very enlightening: it speaks to the scope but not to the nature of Kemal's accomplishments. What to say about the latter?
When Bosquet asked Kemal to describe himself, the latter replied, "I am a novelist of transformation—of the changes Turkey is undergoing." It's a truer statement than he knew or intended. Kemal simply meant that he tried, in his writings, to comprehend those changes and expose their workings; and that he certainly has done. But his life has been more representative of Turkey's twentieth-century transformation than have any of his writings—perhaps even more than their sum. For in the end they all reflect but facets of his experience, whereas there's a great deal of his life, such as his political involvement, that's illustrative but absent from the pages of his novels. What's more, Kemal hasn't just been a chronicler or an embodiment of change; he has been an instigator of it. Along with Nâzim Hikmet, Turkey's most beloved poet, he has done for Turkish what Twain did for American English, or Pushkin for Russian: reinvigorate the written language by infusing it with the colloquial. (His success in that regard was so thoroughgoing that a linguist published a Yashar Kemal Dictionary.) Indeed, he may even have helped, in some small way, to reorient policy. After decades of hounding him and other like-minded writers, the Turkish government has recently done an about-face and begun showering him with honors, including its highest: the Presidential Cultural and Artistic Grand Prize. More important, it asked him to serve as a mediator as it tries to negotiate a solution to the Kurdish issue. Though efforts at compromise have recently run aground, the mere fact that the two sides were talking—and had identified an intermediary they both respected and would listen to—represents significant progress.
What further transformations does Turkey's bard of change anticipate? He's concerned, above all else, about the environment: forests burned and razed; swamps drained; and dolphins stalked, speared and rendered into blubber by the desperate fishermen of the Marmara. He's concerned not only about what those changes mean for the world but also about what they mean for the men and women who inhabit it—for their customs, their psychology, their humanity—because for him the world of human creation, of culture, ambition, fantasy and dreams, is shaped by the concrete, physical world in which we're born and bound to live through both pleasure and pain. Indeed, that concern has been the major undercurrent of almost all his works. For Kemal, ever the idiosyncratic Marxist, it is changes in the environment—not in the ownership of the means of production—that shape history and human evolution. And he doesn't like the road we're on.
Yet for all these concerns, Kemal is not worried. "I have never been a pessimist," he writes. Nor is he (again, pace Marx) a determinist. "The human species, which is afraid of the dark, invents for itself myths and dreamworlds so that it can continue on its way, and whenever it feels itself hemmed in, it will find the means to save itself. Modern technology has brought us to the situation we are in now, but it is also technology that will allow us to escape that situation." As for himself, Kemal writes the following: "Never has our world known such overwhelming change. I belong to this time—in the factories and fields, in politics and thought—and as long as I can, and with all my strength, I will keep up this pace. I take pride in knowing that I have one foot on the ancient land of Anatolia, the birthplace of Homer, and one foot on the Russian steppe. I am chagrined at my own poverty in the midst of such riches. Humans need a world of dreams where they can go forth to discover themselves. I do what I can."