Sixteen months after I moved to Ankara, one of the leading literary figures of Turkey, Yashar Kemal, died. Kemal was a polarizing force of Turkish literature: charismatic and beloved by generations who came up in his wake, he was also a radical firebrand, a constant thorn in the government’s side. For these reasons, I’d long had his seminal novel Memed, my Hawk, on my radar – what could inspire so many, I wondered, but scare those in power? I had a surprising amount of trouble finding it in English here in Turkey until a few months after his death, on a trip to Istanbul, where I found a copy in a bookstore that caters to foreigners. Nearby, a Turkish bookstore had Kemal’s image on a three-story banner clinging to its side, andit was inhis shadow I walked home.
As I cracked Memed, my Hawk open in my AirBnB flat I wasn’t sure I’d be able to relate to a sixty year old Turkish masterwork. There I was, a stolid American of some privilege, embedded in modern Turkey, hundreds of miles and decades removed from the peasants the book jacket described. What could it say to me? An early passage describing the thistle fields of the eastern Taurus mountains seemed an ambiguous portent: “Thistles,” Kemal tells us, “generally grow in soil which is neither good nor bad but has been neglected.” And “They sprout so thick, so close together, that a snake would not be able to slip through them.” A curious start, but no matter. I soldiered on.
And after all this thistle business, I was somewhat surprised to discover that Memed, my Hawk is a swashbuckling, page-turning, adventure story chock-full of noble peasants and evil villains. It’s the story of a young boy named Memed who grows up oppressed and abused by the landlord of his village, Abdi Agha. Memed runs away (through the thistle fields, naturally), only to be recaptured and abused further. Eventually he falls in love with the Agha’s niece, which leads to further tragedy, and he must run to the hills to join a band of brigands, one of whom, Mad Durdu, steals “even the underpants” of his victims. Much of the rest of the book is Memed’s long quest to avenge himself against the evil, exploitive landlord, be reunited with his love interest, and (almost coincidentally), free the peasants from their oppressive yoke. There are gunfights, noble sacrifices, and tragic minor characters like Memed’s loyal right-hand man Jabbar, and the conflicted but good-hearted tracker, Lame Ali.
I was pleasantly surprised, then engrossed. I consider myself a fairly literary reader, but a great chunk of my soul is dedicated to cheap thrills from old school pulp: John D. MacDonald, Dashiell Hammet, Patricia Highsmith. The idea that Turkey of the mid-twentieth century had tastes similar to the USA, with clear distinctions of good and evil, and was prone to idealize a troubled past, made me feel connected to my adopted country in a new, comforting way. Could it be I’d found a spiritual cousin to the dozens of noble outlaw myths from Zorro and Robin Hood to Australia’s Kelley Gang and ballads of American gunfighters? Sure I had.
The early chapters of Memed, my Hawk adhere closely to a timeless mythology where technology is limited to guns and plows pulled by oxen. Memed’s first visit to a city is related in fairy-tale language to describe glittering windows of glass and the magic of paved roads:
“Near these was a big tiled building and beyond it lay the whole town, like a toy city, with its roofs of shiny corrugated iron, its whitewashed roofed terraces, and its red tiles. Memed and Mustafa stared at this site, their eyes wide with astonishment. How white it all was! How many houses there were! They couldn’t take their eyes off it.
“Crossing the Boklu stream, they entered the town. The windows shone in the sunlight. Thousands of shiny panes, like crystal palaces, just as Dursun had said. A town for fairy kings, with palaces.” (p. 60)
But then complications set in. By the book’s third act, the evil Agha has sought the help of an equally corrupt government stooge, and we learn about the fledgling government in Ankara, that the brigands crowding the hills are the remainders of the troops that rallied to fight the French and English eager to divide the remains of the Ottoman Empire amongst themselves, only to be foiled by the great Ataturk. Suddenly we’re in a real time and place. And it is a political world after all, even if Memed himself doesn’t care much about the national government.
Kemal would claim his whole life that he was simply a bard, a tale-teller, a link in a chain of storytellers running from the dim past to the sketchy future. But his claims of being apolitical seem at best disingenuous, however, since by 1952, when he wrote Memed, my Hawk, Kemal had been steeped in political intrigue for years. His father was, apparently, a feudal landlord, and was murdered in a mosque while five-year old Kemal watched; Kemal himself lost an eye in the incident. And as a teenager, Kemal would be arrested for trying to unionize tractor drivers in southern Anatolia.
How could such an attitude not be reflected in his writing? The thistles in the field were not merely for local flavor; peasants everywhere face thistles of all kinds, from harsh overlords to military dictatorships to corrupt oligarchs. Life is a hardship to be endured until finally Memed tells the peasants: burn down the thistles, then sow your field. Veiled in metaphor or not, this wasn’t a message a government could tolerate without reprisal, even from a beloved author and perennial Nobel prize short-lister. His outspoken nature, socialist leanings and minority status – he was a Kurd in a land ruled by Turks – would ultimately, in 1995, earn him a 20-month suspended jail sentence for speaking out on Turkey’s continued harsh treatment of its minorities.
A few months after reading Memed, my Hawk, I had the chance to visit the Eastern Taurus mountains, not far from Kemal’s birthplace and the fictional Taurus mountains of Memed’s world. As we left the airport and the driver steered our car up into the rugged foothills, I had an eerie feeling of deja vu: It was all as Yashar Kemal had described. The stony fields covered in thistle patches, the high canted stratas of crumbling dusty stone, and there, along the cliffs above the treacherous scree and shrubs: caves, dark holes where a brigand could hide out while gendarmes camped on the valley floor.
It was indeed a harsh landscape; in olden times you would need harsh sensibilities to survive it. I was used to the sprawling malls and sterile towers of Ankara, and was energized in this world of Yashar Kemal that still somehow existed. The geography he had embodied still teemed with goatherds, cows, and peasants resolved to the hardness of life but still with open hearts (and guesthouses) for outsiders. And it was there, where literature meets landscape, that I felt most connected to Memed, and to an Anatolian heartland most would assume has vanished.