As Big as Mount Ararat

As Big as Mount Ararat

Orhan Pamuk may be the face that Turkish literature turns to the West, but the novelist Yashar Kemal is its conscience and heart.


"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.’"

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.

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.

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."

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