Off the Shelf: Yashar Kemal

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A cauldron where fact, fantasy and folklore are stirred to produce poetry. He is a storyteller in the oldest tradition, that of Homer, spokesman for a people who had no other voice.

— Praise from director Elia Kazan on Turkish writer Yashar Kemal.

Kemal’s novels and short stories give both insight into the struggles of his people of the Chukurova Plain and entry into these people’s collective consciousness, an awareness deeply connected to the land on which they live.

He begins his most famous work, Memed, My Hawk, by describing the setting:

The coastal plains between the mountains and the shore are of clay, quite smooth, as if polished. Here the soil is rich. For miles inland the plain holds the tang of the sea, its air still salt and sharp. Beyond this smooth plowed land the scrub of the Chukurova begins. Thickly covered with a tangle of brushwood, reeds, blackberry brambles, wild vines and rushes, its deep green expanse seems boundless, wilder and darker than a forest.

He continues for three pages, grounding the landscape before truly beginning the story. Landscape is of great importance to his narrative because landscape is of great importance to its characters. His vivid, highly-detailed descriptions infuse the characters’ love for their land, and their anguish when their land fails them.

All this clarifies their desire to fight for the land, and the way of life it nurtures—a common conflict found in Kemal’s work. Memed, My Hawk follows the life of a teenage boy who flees his impoverished mountain village and becomes a brigand, determined to topple the local landlord that ruthlessly exploits his family and so many others.

Memed, My Hawk and Kemal’s other works, through their masterful story-telling, rich description, and powerful characterization, are truly transporting. Reading them, you are given the sense of entering not only Anatolia, but into the conscience of the world itself.

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