KEMAL TAHİR (1910 – 1973)

Kemal Tahir is the pseudonym of the Turkish writer İsmail Kemalettin Demir who was born in Istanbul, on March 13, 1910. His father was a military police officer who was posted to mobile hospitals all over the country; hence the young Kemal was educated in primary schools in various Anatolian cities. When his mother died, he was forced to end his education at Lycée de Galatasaray, and he took a job as a clerk for the state coal mine administration. In 1932, with the help of journalist friends, he started publishing the art periodical Geçit. During the two years he published this magazine, he grew fond of journalism and gained experience at various national papers and periodicals as proofreader, interviewer, translator, secretary, editor, and editor-in-chief. He also had the opportunity to establish close friendships with many prominent literary figures.

In 1938, during his military service, he was sentenced to fifteen years for instigating mutiny among the navy. After spending thirteen years in various prisons, in 1950 he benefited from a general amnesty. Upon his release, he tried to make his living by translating for various newspapers and periodicals. During this time, he published adaptations of foreign crime novels that had influenced him. When these novels gained unexpected popularity, his self-confidence grew and he made writing his sole source of income. After publishing many poems and stories, it is with his work Göç İnsanları that Tahir became a true novelist. This novel contained four separate but successive stories, and it proved that he would make a successful novelist. This is how Tahir came to acquire his identity as a novelist, as he would be known thereafter.

Tahir adopted a traditional and prescriptive style, and his novels mostly dealt with the lives of people from rural origins, and the alienation that they suffered once they migrated to cities. Tahir’s signature trait in his novels is the emphasis on description. The Encyclopedia on Literature from Tanzimat to Today makes this comment about his novels, “Tahir claimed that the Turkish people and Turkish society were nothing like western people and society. Hence, he believed that the Turkish novel should be distinct from the western novel in terms of content. In order to achieve this ideal, the Turkish novelist needed to study the characteristics of Turkish people and society.” In this sense, Tahir chose to write about the people from rural Anatolia whom he considered his own kind. He portrayed the confusion that they experienced in the oppressive chaos of the cities, and the alienation exerted by cultural conflict. Tahir did not deal with this theme solely in the context of migration from the village to the city, but he also picked up on the twisted relationship that existed between landlords and sharecroppers in villages. The novels Yediçınar Yaylası, Köyün Kamburu, Büyük Mal and Kelleci Mehmet are typical of this. Similarly, his novels Bozkırdaki Çiçek and Rahmet Yolları Kesti took place in the setting of village life. The novel Rahmet Yolları Kesti can also be considered as a work portraying the lifestyles of bandits in Anatolia. In addition, it is possible to view Esir şehrin İnsanları, Esir şehrin Mahpusu, Yorgun Savaşçı, Kurt Kanunu and Yol Ayrımı as historical novels documenting the ideological and cultural conflicts that existed at the time between villages and cities. During his prison sentence, Tahir wrote his novels Namusçular, Karılar Koğuşu and Damağası, which related the destructive realization of these conflicts. These woks also showed in most realistic fashion how life in prison can be perverse and difficult. The novel Devlet Ana is characteristic of his period of expertise, and quite rich in terms of the historical and cultural sources that it drew upon. In order to create a superb historical novel, Tahir used the tales of Dede Korkut, Anatolian legends, verses from the Holy Koran and the Bible, Persian literature and Central Asian poetry, along with a fluid and lively prose decorated with proverbs and idioms.

Tahir’s work entitled Göç İnsanları was filmed in 1986 under the title Güneşe Köprü (Bridge to the Sun) whereas the works Karılar Koğuşu and Kurt Kanunu were filmed in 1989 and 1991 respectively. The novel Yorgun Savaşçı was adapted as a television series on two separate occasions, in 1979 and 1993.

Tahir won the Yunus Nadi Novel Prize for 1967 / 1968 with Yorgun Savaşçı, and the Turkish Language Institution Novel Prize for 1968 with Devlet Ana. He died on April 21st 1973.

Kemal Tahir’s works:

Stories: Göç İnsanları (The People of the Lake 1955)

Novels: Sağırdere (The Deaf Brook 1955), şehrin İnsanları (The People of the City 1956), Kör Duman (Blind Smoke 1957), Rahmet Yolları Kesti (Mercy Waylaid 1957), Yediçınar Yaylası (The Highland of the Seven Plane Trees 1958), Köyün Kamburu (The Village Hunchback 1959), Şehrin Mahpusu (City Prisoner 1961), Kelleci Mehmet (Mehmet, the Headhunter 1962), Yorgun Savaşçı (The Tired Warrior 1965), Bozkırdaki Çekirdek (The Seed in the Steppe 1967), Devlet Ana (Mother State 1967), Kurt Kanunu (The Law of the Wolf 1969), Büyük Mal (The Big Merchandise 1970), and Yol Ayrımı (1971)

Posthumous Novels: Namusçular (The Defenders of Honor 1974), Karılar Koğuşu (Women’s Ward 1974), Hür şehrin İnsanları (The People of the Free City 1976), Damağası (The Lord of the Roof 1977), and Bir Mülkiyet Kalesi (A Fortress of Possession 1977)

* Biographical information concerning Kemal Tahir has been gathered from Tanzimat’tan Bugüne Edebiyatçılar Ansiklopedisi.

Sources: Moran, Berna. Türk Romanına Eleştirel Bir Bakış, İletişim Yayınevi, 2000.

Reference: Yesim Gokce (Bilkent University)/Turkish Cultural Foundation, photograph courtesy of Ara Guler.

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