Why You Should Read: The Birds Have Also Gone, Yashar Kemal.
By Luke Frostick
“Come on my friends, buy a bird, it costs so little, nothing really. Look, these boys here, instead of turning to sharp practices, instead of thieving and picking pockets they are giving you the chance to do a good deed. Think, a good deed! It’s for this that they've captured all these birds. Come on brothers, buy them! Buy these birds and cast them up, free, into the sky. Watch them fly away, full of joy… come on, brothers…”
In the last edition of the review, our editor Erica wrote a lovely article, about Yashar Kemal and his most famous book Mehmet My Hawk (you can read it here). I suspect that most people are introduced to Yashar Bey through the exploits of Slim Mehmet in the Taurus Mountains. But I want to make the case for another of his books, probably the one I love most, The Birds Have Also Gone.
The story was written in the 1970s and is set in Istanbul. It follows a group of adolescent street boys and their attempts to capture and sell birds for ‘fly and be free,’ an old Istanbul tradition where local people pay to save a small bird in the hopes that it will be there to greet them at the gates of paradise. On an interesting side note, Yashar Bey points out a couple of times that this isn’t a Muslim tradition, as such, but is an Istanbul one practiced outside the mosques, churches and synagogues of the city. But the tradition is fading away and the boys find it harder and harder to find people to sell the birds to, the decline of this tradition is emblematic, in the writer’s eyes, of the city moving towards modernity and a colder future.
The story is an interesting comparison to Mehemt My Hawk because in essence they deal with the same theme. Namely, how changes to a society affect those at the very bottom of it. But, unlike Mehmet My Hawk, the story is far more pessimistic. Mehmet is the personification of optimism for the people around him but the observers of the young fowlers are just waiting to see how long it will take them to fail. Mehmet is also proactive; he grabs his rifle, straps on a bandoleer and a dagger and sets out into the mountains to force the future into a more just shape. However, the boys from Faith are utterly defenceless against the changes happening in the world around them. Also the three boys are quite unlike the heroic Mehmet: they swear, steel, brawl, and fantasise about groping boobs in the abandoned palaces of the Pashas, things the virtuous Mehmet wouldn't dream of doing. Also in contrast, there is no villain in The Birds Have Also Gone, no conniving Agha trying to steel the peasants’ land, just cynicism, creeping urban sprawl, and indifference in a world that stopped caring.
One might be tempted to armature psychoanalyse the writer. He wrote this book later in life and one can't help wondering if this change reflects an older more jaded Yashar Bey, but I’ll leave that for you. But i can say that the book still feels very Yashar Kemal, with familiar motifs like hawks, thistles, and saintly old men giving long amusing rants about the state of the world, but all of these things are a rarity in Yashar Bey’s version of Istanbul and getting rarer. And, as with all, Yashar Kemal books the prose are jaw dropping, he has the ability the craft a sentence to stun you with its simplicity and beauty.
The book is also about the city and about how the city was changing in the 1970s. The majority of the book takes place on the Florya plain, an area of Istanbul that I wasn't familiar with and that I know now to be Atatürk Airport. But the boys on their quest to sell birds visit, Kazliçeshme, Sirkeci, to the Süleymaniye mosque and Taksim. The 1970s is a period of the city’s history that I knew very little about and I learned a lot from the little detail about the districts that they visit. Yashar Kemal didn't set out to write a guide to Istanbul so all the details are incidental, but I found these details even more charming because of that; this is not a book that is trying to explain Istanbul to a foreigner. The descriptions of the city tie in with the theme of the story; Yasar Kemal writes scathingly about “ugly apartment blocks [that] began to crowd the lovely dale of Florya where violets grow.” An accurate prediction of things to come. He even mentions, although briefly the Yeshilköy airport that would expand to cover most of the plain that he describes so tenderly.
I loved The Birds Have Also Gone; it's a moodier book than Mehemet My Hawk but beautifully written, and it provides a fascinating insight into the ever changing city of Istanbul.
 Kemal Y. (1989) The Birds Have Also Gone, London: Minerva Fiction, 108
 Kemal Y. (1989) The Birds Have Also Gone, London: Minerva Fiction, 84
You can buy The Birds Have Also Gone here.