The late Yaşar Kemal’s remarkable blend of originality, wisdom and humanity earned him universal respect. Roger Norman celebrates a remarkable storyteller with unique powers to move and inspire, especially when lamenting the modern world’s wanton destruction of ancient traditions and values
It was JB Priestley who came up with the term “primary writer”, claiming that certain writers (not many) possessed a style both original and inimitable. By this definition, it’s tempting to think that Yaşar Kemal, recently deceased at a grand old age, was a primary writer, whereas Orhan Pamuk is not. You can’t imagine Pamuk without the likes of Italo Calvino or Milan Kundera. One critic recently referred to Pamuk’s “urbane postmodernism”, and whatever that might mean it implies derivativeness. Pamuk has even been accused of plagiarism, but Yaşar Kemal never will be. His writing came from a forge of his own design and a fire of his own making. Anyone who doubts this has only to read the first two chapters of İnce Memed, translated as Memed, My Hawk, or any two chapters of almost any of his works.
İnce Memed made his name in the West, especially in France, where his work has always been prized. Peter Ustinov turned the novel into a film and, according to Time Out, “hopelessly mangled” it. It’s hard to see how because the story is what the French call “une épopée lyrique” – good village boy is persecuted by evil landowner; his girl is killed and he takes to the mountains and exacts his revenge as a bandit. The first two chapters are mostly concerned with the wasteland of thorns. Such a spiky, prickly, uncomfortable piece of writing must have deterred some readers, but those who persevered probably thought (certainly I did) that any writer so little concerned with appealing to his readers at the start of the book must have something special to say.
Perhaps what he most wanted to convey was the tragic loss caused by the overwhelming of the old nomadic cultures of the Taurus region, the last episodes of which he was old enough to have witnessed with his own eyes. It’s the theme of İnce Memed, of Bin Boğalar Efsanesi (Legend of a Thousand Bulls) and of others such as The Lords of Akchasaz, where he quotes a line from the old aşık minstrels: “Ferman padişahın dağlar bizimdir” (“The decree is the sultan’s, the mountains are ours”). The Ottomans wanted to settle the Türkmen tribes for the reason that centralising states have always objected to nomadism: you can’t tax ’em if you can’t find ’em. Nor can you enlist them in your army. Besides, sedentary folk get upset by the sudden appearance of a hundred black tents on the plains. Quite so, but the cultural magnificence of those parts was articulated above all in the black Türkmen tents, the fine horses and harnesses, the forges, the rugs, the long seasonal journeys. The foothills of the Taurus were alive with their music, songs, tales, herds and flocks – and where were the Ottomans meanwhile? Encrenellated on the Bosphorus.
The star of Bin Boğalar Efsanesi is a sword made by old Haydar, master blacksmith, who looks “like an old Hittite deity”. The Ottoman oppression must be the result of misunderstanding, Haydar thinks, and should be repaired by a meeting between chiefs, attended by an appropriate gift. He forges a sword of the finest metal, decorates its hilt with the rarest gems and takes it himself to Ankara, to present it to İsmet İnönü. Nobody has told him that İönü is no longer president; he has never heard of Adnan Menderes. Arrived at the Pembe Köşk, he is denied entrance and must wait until İnönü emerges.
“Oh dear,” Old Haydar said to himself, as he stared in dismay at this frail shrivelled balding ancient who was hobbling up with tiny steps like a sparrow, that was how a man’s face would wrinkle up when he’d been frustrated and cruel all his life, as ugly as an old leather pouch… It was impossible to say whether the Pasha was glad, flattered or annoyed. In the end, he took the sword … and peered at it gravely. Then he smiled and handed it back to old Haydar. “Very beautiful,” he said. “Very, very beautiful.” And he hobbled away quickly, hop, hop, like a sparrow, and got into the car that was waiting for him. It drove away and Old Haydar was left holding the sword, stunned.
Parallel with Haydar’s failed embassy, there runs a love story between Ceren and Halil, told without fear of superlatives. She is beautiful, brave and appealing. He is strong, honest and handsome. The reader fears a tragedy in the making. Perhaps it is an element in “primary” writing that the tremendous need not be shunned, even if predictable. Yaşar Kemal learned storytelling at the feet (literally) of an old aşık master, for whom making the hairs stand on end on the hearer’s neck and calling the tears to their eyes was the goal. Those old storytellers needed words like respect, nobility, pride and passion, which our contemporary writers treat so diffidently. Ceren is capable of killing herself for love; Haydar may die of humiliation. “Everything is changing and coming to an end,” Haydar laments. “Things are happening, unfamiliar cruel things that we don’t know, that we don’t understand. Nothing can save our world from dying out. Nothing, nobody… The generations after us will sit in a tiny room, pondering like barn owls.”
Despite the grandeur of Yaşar Kemal’s literary world, he was by all accounts a modest man, fuelled by a simple socialism, to which he gave a particular twist: “Socialism is a hundred per cent independence,” he said. “The independence of the individual, of the country – political independence, economic independence and particularly cultural independence… Socialism has no other meaning for me. Until this age, cultures fed from one another without destroying each other… For me, the world is a garden of culture with a thousand flowers; I count even one flower’s disappearance a great loss to the world.”
“Politics threatens art,” he declared to the journalist Nicholas Birch in 2008, at the age of 85. “I don’t write about issues, I don’t write for an audience, I don’t even write for myself. I just write… Look at us all, donkey sons of donkeys all of us, thinking up stories like there is no tomorrow. Because there is no tomorrow… Yes, there is rebellion in my novels, but it’s rebellion against mortality. As long as man goes from one darkness to another, he will create myths for himself. The only difference between me and others is that I write mine down.”
If a justification is needed for devoting a Letter from Anatolia to an appreciation of this great writer, let it be this: the erosion of the old Turkish cultures that Yaşar Kemal deplored continues apace, and still its causes lie in the ever bigger cities. The nomads of Anatolia are almost gone and the vitality of the country folk is imperilled by the absurd urban imperatives. Ponder like a barn owl? There seems hardly time for it.
Roger Norman is a novelist and teacher living in Eskişehir;
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