Why You Should Read: Memed, My Hawk by Yashar Kemal
By Erica Eller
I have a minor superstition that your life will lead you to the books you need to read. It’s a bit like saying: “everything that happens happens for a reason.” Perhaps it is no coincidence that I “discovered” Yaşar Kemal’s work, considering he was a contender for the Nobel Prize for many years and his first novel, Memed, My Hawk (İnce Memed), was an international sensation, having been translated into 40 different languages with over 1.2 million copies sold. His books are an obvious choice for readers of Turkish literature in English. Yet, I didn’t know anything about him in the beginning when it was just me, Memed, and the Çukurova Plains of his Ince Memed series (I accidentally started by reading the second one first). His books gave me a portal out of the cosmopolitan banality of Istanbul. I felt transported back to my rural upbringings in Eastern Washington and my father’s history of agrarian hooliganism. Yaşar Kemal’s books, containing supernatural feats of courage and resilience, felt strangely akin to the myths of the American West in which all great heroes ride off into the sunset, not far from how Memed, My Hawk ends.
The life of Yaşar Kemal was as fascinating as the plots of his books. It contained the same elements of hardship, vigilantism, true love, and poetry. He grew up in the region where most of his novels are set—near the Taurus Mountains (close to Adana). His family, some of the only Kurds in his village, had immigrated from their home near Lake Van after the Russian occupation following World War I. When he was five years old, he lost sight in one of his eyes because of an accident with a knife—his father to blame. A year later, his father was murdered by his uncle in a mosque. His mother felt that he should avenge his father’s death by murdering his uncle, though he never granted her wish. She inspired his passion for banditry thanks to the tales from her family. As a young bard (aşık Kemal), he had no use for written language and spent time composing and reciting epics, laments, and ballads according to Anatolian folkloric tradition. Later, he would learn to read and write, which gave him exposure to classic authors whom he cites as his favorites: Stendhal, Cervantes, and Chekov. He held a number of odd jobs before writing became his profession. He transcribed letters for illiterate people and also labored in the cotton fields and became involved in political organizations that supported the workers. This led him to be sent to jail a few times before eventually, he escaped to Istanbul in 1950 and took up a post at Cumhuriyet, where his journalistic writing became famous. In 1952, he married his first wife, Thilda Serror, who would translate many of his works into English until her death in 2001. Shortly after meeting her, he sat down to write his first novel and most famous work—Memed, My Hawk, published in 1955. It is well known that his early life profoundly influenced this novel.
Memed, My Hawk, is the story of what Yaşar Kemal calls a ‘committed rebel’ in his Introduction. This kind of rebel is a representative of impoverished people who wish to overcome oppression and one who gains his reputation by revealing an uncanny will to survive and to fight for justice.
The opening chapter starts with a description of the land. Ample attention is given to the thistles, characteristic of the region. "The thistles do not grow in groups of two or three. They sprout so thick, so close together, that a snake would not be able to slip through them." (5) The thistles are a significant image throughout the novel because they grow on land that can be sown for agricultural purposes. The following chapter alights into the drama of Memed, one of the poor farmers working on the land of a sharecropping landowner. By placing his life in relief of the landscape, we start to understand the tortured love affair between man and nature that fuels the novel.
When Memed appears in the novel, he is a mangled, wiry figure seeking refuge at the goatherd Suleyman’s home. We later learn that he is an orphan whose growth was stunted because he has been beaten by Abdi Agha (ağa) his overlord and mortal enemy. The bulk of the plot involves Abdi’s cruel attempts to trace down Memed and return him to servitude as a laborer on Abdi’s land. He nearly starves Memed’s adopted mother and steals her cow in an attempt to lure him back. Meanwhile, Memed remains transfixed by the vision of owning his own piece of land and this dream continues to push him out of bounds—to join bandits, to elope with his true love Hatçe (who is engaged to Abdi’s nephew), to murder anyone who is sent by Abdi to hunt him down, and to escape to the hills. He becomes the villagers’ hero because he is able to miraculously ward off Abdi and maintain his moral compass while others are murdered or drawn into the corruption of banditry. Though he makes small gains and incurs dreadful losses throughout the story, his power of dreaming remains intact—just as intact as Abdi’s efforts to destroy it.
The dreams that inspire righteousness in the novel pertain to a life of harmony with nature, true love, and a community in which individuals can fully realize their dreams. The language of the novel is steeped in rich descriptions of nature, poetic interludes and dilatory narration. In this narrative style, Kemal often suspends the main action for rich descriptive set pieces that ornament the world of the Taurus Mountain region. Throughout the novel, we receive supplementary details about the history of forced nomadic settlement or the means of tilling the land by burning the thick roots of the thistle that carpets the plains. Set in the 1930s, the novel portrays a world undergoing a dramatic shift into modernization from a rural purview. The epic narration is expanded to embrace the stories of peripheral characters, which often give realistic alternatives to Memed’s supernatural heroism. A grasp of their lives and the changes wrought by commercial farming sponsored by a new Republic help to inform us about this historical depth and conviction of Memed’s plight.
The fact that the novel has been listed in the same breath as Robin Hood, or the İlliad attests to its classic, legendary quality, but its novelistic setting gives Kemal the freedom to pursue secondary themes in rich detail. According to Semih Gümüş, a writer and book critic, “Kemal had taken the tradition of folk literature and converted it into the contemporary novel.” Though it is unfortunately lost upon an English-speaking audience, his work is especially beloved by those who are familiar with the colloquial language he employs. It was one of the first examples of the “Village Novel” genre that has inspired many Turkish authors since. It also holds an important place in contemporary Turkish literature as it was published just decades after the language reform, which forced authors to expose the contours of their national tongue in creative ways.
Reading Memed, My Hawk was a pleasure. Since reading it, I wholeheartedly agree with Kemal’s own statement that “banditry enhanced my life.”
If you're interested in reading Memed My Hawk you can find it here.
Halman, Talat S. A Millennium of Turkish Literature (A Concise History). Ed. Jayne L. Warner. Republic of Turkey Ministry of Culture and Tourism Handbook Series. 167-168.
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Tharaud, Barry. 2012. "Yaşar Kemal, Son of Homer." Texas Studies In Literature & Language 54, no. 4: 563-590. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed June 6, 2017).
Zalewski, Piotr. 2015. "His Own Çukurova." Nation 300, no. 20: 32-34. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed June 6, 2017).
Erica Eller is a writer, editor, and English teacher from the United States, living in Istanbul. She has published fiction in Literary Hub, The Otolith, and Everyday Genius. She also writes literary and cultural commentary at www.pompandintertext.com and posts on biodiversity at www.biodivvy.com, her two active blogs. In 2015, she co-founded the Istanbul-based writer’s group, Yirmi Yedi, which continues to meet on a weekly basis. Currently, she volunteers as an editorial and outreach assistant for The Bosphorus Review of Books. She is also the former lead-organizer of The Hazel Reading Series, based in San Francisco.