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YASAR KEMAL (1923)

Yasar Kemal is the pen name of the Turkish writer Kemal Sadık Gökçeli (born 1923, Adana). When he was five, Kemal lost his father, and had to shoulder the responsibility of providing a living for his family. From early ages onwards, he took up various jobs; he was a cotton plant worker, a night watchman, a tractor operator, and a library clerk. The library job probably had much influence on his future career in literature, as it provided him ample opportunity to read, and fed his interest in literature. In the 1940s, Kemal discovered the journal Çığ, which was published in Adana, and this became his official initiation into the world of literature. During these years, he built up an immense interest towards folk literature, and traveled through countless villages to collect tales and stories. In 1943, he published these in his first book Ağıtlar.

The 1950s witnessed the transition of Turkish society from an agricultural to an industrial one, and the lifestyle of Anatolian villages changed as well. Kemal was interested in portraying the conflicts of people stuck between traditional values and the dynamics of industrialization. From 1953 to 1954, his novel İnce Memed was published in the Cumhuriyet newspaper in an installment form, and it drew a lot of attention. The hero, İnce Memed fights against the oppressive forces of wealth, embodied in the Ağa, the feudal lord of large stretches of land. Memed divides up the land among the villagers in equity, kills the Ağa, and retreats to the mountain, assuming the identity of a bandit. This is how he becomes the champion of the people. Kemal’s İnce Memed is an imaginary character created by the necessity for justice and hope. The epic novel İnce Memed is special not because of its unique content, but also because of the novelty that it brought to form. Just like all of Kemal’s other works, İnce Memed draws its sources from legends and myths. It is an indeed an epic but it has all the sophistication, and the literary approach of a novel. İnce Memed is a legendary masterpiece that has been translated into forty languages, and has been internationally printed over 140 times. During the Yasar Kemal Symposium held in 2003, in Bilkent University, the author talked about the harsh conditions in which he composed this novel: “It was one of the coldest Istanbul winters ever. I had no money to put wood in the stove. Yet, I just pretended that the fire was going strong; I covered myself in a ripped blanket, and typed away on an old typewriter that was missing many keys. That’s how I wrote the İnce Memed, and this novel is the best memory I kept from that house I could not pay the rent to.” 

Most of Kemal’s work carries traces of Anatolian folk literature. He composed his works by bringing the legends and tales of Anatolia to the reality of his day. This makes Kemal’s work significant not only for Turkish literature but also for world literature.

No doubt, Ince Memed  is not Kemal’s only major success. His novel Yer Demir Gök Bakır, which has been made into a movie, is a tale of black humor, which portrays the efforts of a villager to find a way out of exasperation, and hopelessness. Immobilized by monotony, the villager finds his salvation in creating his own myths and legends, hence peculiar and supernatural events take place in the village where the novel is staged, and eventually, the village dweller finds himself believing his own lies. At first glance, the author appears to be telling a story that seems harmless enough, but at a deeper level, he is also communicating all of the bitterness of hidden despair and helplessness. Most of Kemal’s characters are Anatolian village people who are weary and angry in the face of the oppression they experience.

Kemal opens his novels with prolonged descriptions of nature and surroundings. Hence, he draws his readers into an environment that he knows quite well, and the descriptive elements make the reader feel right at home. Another trademark achievement of the author is the neologisms that he contributed to the Turkish language. Because he is a wordmonger in the real sense, reading and studying his works is a special pleasure. His works not only allow the reader to discover new worlds, but they also take the reader into a brand new language. Hence Kemal is one of the most prominent authors of Turkish literature who ought to be read for enjoyment.

The Works of Yasar Kemal:

Short Stories: Sarı Sıcak (Yellow Heat 1952)

Novels:
İnce Memed (Memed, My Hawk 1955), Teneke (The Drumming-Out 1955), Orta Direk (The Wind from the Plain 1960), Yer Demir Gök Bakır (Iron Earth, Copper Sky 1963), Ülmez Otu (The Undying Grass 1968), Akçasazın Ağaarı / Demirciler Çarşısı Cinayeti (The Agas of Akchasaz Trilogy /Murder in the Ironsmiths Market 1974), Akçasazın Ağaları / Yusufçuk Yusuf (The Agas of Akchasaz Trilogy / Yusuf, Little Yusuf 1975), Yılanı Üldürseler (To Crush the Serpent 1976), Al Gözüm Seyreyle Salih (The Saga of a Seagull)(1976), Allahın Askerleri (God’s Soldiers 1978), Kuşlar da Gitti (The Birds Have Also Gone: Long Stories 1978), Deniz Küstü (The Sea-Crossed Fisherman 1978), Hüyükteki Nar Ağacı (The Pomegranate on the Knoll 1982), Yağmurcuk Kuşu/Kimsecik (Little Nobody I 1980), Kale Kapısı/ Kimsecik (Little Nobody II 1980), Kanın Sesi/Kimsecik (Little Nobody III 1991), Fırat Suyu Kan Akıyor Baksana (Look, the Firat River is Flowing with Blood)(1997), Karıncanın Su İçtiği (Ant Drinking Water 2002), and Tanyeri Horozları (The Cocks of Dawn 2002).

Epic Novels:
Üç Anadolu Efsanesi (Three Anatolian Legends)(1967), Ağrıdağı Efsanesi (The Legend of Mount Ararat) (1970), Binboğalar Efsanesi (The Legend of the Thousand Bulls 1971), and Çakırcalı Efe (The Life of the Famous Bandit Cakircali)(1972).

Children’s Novels:
Filler Sultanı ile Kırmızı Sakallı Topal Karınca (The Sultan of the Elephants and the Red-Bearded Lame Ant 1977).

Prizes:

  • Report series entitled “Seven Days in the Largest Farm in the World” 1955 Journalists Association of Turkey, Achievement Prize
  • İnce Memed 1956 Varlık Novel Prize 
  • Play adapted from the novel Teneke 1966 International Nancy Theater Festival, First Prize
  • Demirciler Üarşısı Cinayeti 1974 Madaralı Novel Prize
  • 1977 France Critics Syndicate, Best Foreign Novel Prize
  • Ülmez Otu 1978 France, Best Foreign Novel Prize
  • Binboğalar Efsanesi 1979 France Grand Jury, Best Book Award
  • 1982 International Cino Del Duca Award
  • 1984 French Legion d’Honneur Commandeur Rank
  • 1984 TÜYAP Book Fair People’s Award
  • 1985 Sedat Simavi Foundation Literature Award
  • Kale Kapısı ile 1986 Orhan Kemal Novel Award
  • 1988 TÜYAP Book Fair People’s Award
  • 1988 French Ministry OF Culture Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres Rank
  • 1991 France Strasbourg University, Honorary Doctorate
  • 1992 TÜYAP Book Fair, Honorary Author
  • Antalya Mediterranean University, Honorary Doctorate
  • 1993 Ministry of Culture Grand Prize
  • 1994 Association “Mülkiyeliler Birliği,” Rüştü Koray Prize
  • 1996 Turkey Publisher’s Union, Freedom of Thought Award.
Sources: Tekin, Mehmet. Roman Sanatı I Romanın Unsurları. Ütüken Yayınları, 2001, Moran, Berna. Türk Romanına Eleştirel Bir Bakış, İletişim Yayınevi, 2000, Bilkent University, Deparment of Turkish Literature, Class Notes.

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

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

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