He had credited many writers with influencing his work: Stendhal, Cervantes, Chekhov, and Faulkner, among others. But in the 2005 introduction to his best-known novel, Memed, My Hawk, first published in 1955, Turkey’s greatest storyteller, Yaşar Kemal, who died on February 28, at age 92, admitted to having another master: Charlie Chaplin.
Kemal was the underdog’s writer. It was the dirt-poor villagers squeezed dry by the great agas, the agas exploited by the corrupt landowners, and the outlaws of the Taurus Mountains, forced down to the plains, resettled, and brought to heel by the state, whom he cast as his heroes. Modernity, in its relentless sweep, tried to fling them aside. Through Kemal, they held fast and fought back.
Kemal came from a family of Kurdish origin, though he never played up the fact, even when in 1995 he penned a breathless, scathing essay for the UK-based Index on Censorship denouncing Turkey’s policies toward its Kurds. “Turkey is disappearing in flames along with its forests, anonymous acts of genocide, and 2.5 million people exiled from their homes, their villages burnt, in desperate poverty, hungry and naked, forced to take to the road,” he wrote, describing the army’s scorched-earth tactics in the country’s southeast, “and no one raises a finger.” The words earned him a 20-month suspended jail sentence on charges of inciting hatred and separatism. “You are not convicting me. I am convicting you!” he reportedly yelled at the judge during his sentencing.
His main allegiance was not to any country or nation, but to a land. “There’s been a debate if he was more Kurdish or Turkish,” Kaya Genç, a young writer, told me at an Istanbul cafe run by one of Kemal’s old friends, the octogenarian photographer Ara Güler. “But maybe the best way to describe him is as Anatolian.” In geographical terms, Anatolia is that part of Turkey that lies to the east of Istanbul, the part that the poet Nâzım Hikmet once compared to the head of a horse galloping from far-off Asia into the Mediterranean. In Kemal’s world, it is Turkey’s soul.
Kemal was likely born in 1923—the year that modern, republican Turkey, the sole surviving rump of the Ottoman Empire, came into existence—in a poor village on the banks of the Ceyhan River near the plains of Çukurova. When he was almost 5, he saw his father stabbed to death in a mosque. In an interview, he recalled hearing him sing. He went to school, dropped out, and worked a couple of odd jobs; but he also wandered the nearby hills, picking up legends, poems, sayings, and jokes from the local villagers and the roving bandits, part of a tradition of oral literature left behind by Anatolia’s itinerant bards, mystics, and Kurdish epic singers (or dengbêj). “Banditry,” Kemal would later write, “enhanced my life.”