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Obituary: Yasar Kemal 2 mars 2015

Posted by Acturca in Art-Culture, Books / Livres, Turkey / Turquie.
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The Guardian (UK) Monday, March 2, 2015, p. 39

David Barchard

Turkish writer best known for his novel Memed, My Hawk. The Turkish writer Yasar Kemal, who has died aged 91, found fame after the publication of his first novel, Ince Memed (1955), translated into English as Memed, My Hawk (1961). It became known around the world in other translations, the first Turkish novel to make a big impact internationally. Kemal was then working as a journalist in Istanbul, but the story dealt with the harsh life of farmers and ordinary people in the Çukurova plain and Taurus mountains around Adana in southern Turkey.

Memed, My Hawk is a sort of Robin Hood tale, rich in autobiographical elements. Its hero, Memed, grows up in a village cut off from the rest of the world and owned by an oppressive landowner, Abdi Agha, who viciously exploits the farmers and their families. A feud springs up between Memed and Abdi: Memed, accompanied by the young woman he loves, Hatche, is driven into the mountains as a bandit and eventually kills Abdi, though only after Hatche has been killed and he himself betrayed.

It is an extraordinarily violent story, told with great vividness and simplicity in language that not only brings the luckless villagers to life but also evokes very strongly the sounds, smells, and colours of Turkey’s Taurus region. The message is clear – the oppressed need to stand up firmly against oppression and fight injustice rather than endure it uncomplainingly. The novel became a classic, even though some Turkish readers do not think it is necessarily Kemal’s best.

Not everyone approved. When a leading Hollywood producer contemplated a film version, he was warned that the Turkish authorities considered Kemal to be a communist and he backed off. It was not until 1984 that Peter Ustinov directed and starred (as Abdi) in a film version of Memed My Hawk. Even then Ustinov was denied permission to film in Turkey.

Kemal was born in the village of Hemite (now renamed Gökçedam) a couple of weeks before the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the declaration of the Republic of Turkey. He was named Kemal Sadik, after his father, and in 1934 the family took the surname of Gökçeli. His parents, Sadik and Nigr, were Kurdish peasant farmers who had escaped from the first world war by trekking a few years earlier from their home on the shores of Lake Van to live in what is now Turkey’s Osmaniye province, near the north-east corner of the Mediterranean. The only Kurdish family in the village, they spoke Kurdish at home and Turkish with their neighbours.

A childhood knife accident left Kemal blind in one eye, and when he was five years old his father was murdered before his eyes by his stepbrother. His interest in literature began with folksongs. Unable to play the saz – the Turkish long-necked lute – well, he became interested in the world of ballads, and their stories of bandits and protests. Working part-time as a casual labourer in the cotton fields around Adana, he put himself through some secondary schooling but was forced to leave in his mid-teens.

In 1943, he published a book of folk ballads locally, and while doing his military service in Ankara a year later his first short story. For the next few years he combined working as a labourer with offering his services as a public letter writer, moving gradually into journalism and in 1950 served a short spell in prison for alleged communist activities.

A year later, on the advice of several of Turkey’s leading leftist writers, he went to Istanbul and was given a job as a reporter on Cumhuriyet newspaper. It was at this point that he adopted the pen name of Yasar Kemal.

From then onwards his life was a story of high-profile success: three travel books based on his work as a reporter, and more than 20 novels between 1955 and 2013, continuing to deal with the people of the southern Turkish countryside whom he had known in his earlier life and their sufferings and feuds. He won a stream of Turkish and international awards, though he seems to have been more appreciated outside the English-speaking countries. He was particularly liked in France, becoming in 2011 a grand officier of the Légion d’Honneur. But though nominated for the Nobel prize in 1973, he never won it.

Kemal’s lifelong passion for social justice led him to join the newly legalised Workers’ Party of Turkey in 1962. He also always publicly affirmed his Kurdish identity even when tensions between Ankara and the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ party, were at their height.

In the late 1970s he moved temporarily to Sweden at a time when there was a spate of political assassinations in Turkey. In 1996 he was sentenced to 20 months for an article he wrote for Index on Censorship, but although he asked the court not to suspend it, he did not actually go to jail.

Kemal married his first wife, Thilda Serrero, in 1952, and they had a son, Rasit. Thilda died in 2001, and the following year he married Ayse Semiha Baban. She and Rasit survive him.

Yasar Kemal (Kemal Gökçeli), writer, born 6 October 1923; died 28 February 2015

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