"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.