Monday, January 3, 2011

Book Review: Memed, My Hawk (Ince Memed) by Yashar Kemal

There's a fantastic review of Absurdistan I once read that said:
Just unbutton its shirt and let it bare its chest. Like a victorious wrestler, this novel is so immodestly vigorous, so burstingly sure of its barbaric excellence, that simply by breathing, sweating and standing upright it exalts itself.
And yeah, I think that applies to Memed, My Hawk a whole lot more than it applies to Shteyngart's work. It's rare when you can write a classical legend in 1955. It's a John Ford Western except that it is just as relevant to today as it was in the '50s and unlike the John Fords, it took place in contemporary times. Yashar Kemal owns. He made me forget my Turkey and start living in his for a few hundred pages. I'm not sure what else I could say but that.

The book is about the titular character, believe it or not. As a boy, Memed runs from home, finds the world outside is pretty interesting, but ultimately is drawn back home. His family, seemingly longstanding enemies of Abdi Agha, the ruler of Degirmenoluk and four other villages, is punished for his transgressions. Years after this continual punishment he runs away with his beloved. That works out poorly. He then takes to the mountains and becomes the bravest brigand the Cukurova has seen.

Although it itself is a legend, it also discusses how legends are made. The tiny, boyish, Memed becomes a monster to his enemies and a haughty animal to his companions. The book is about how expansive Turkey is, it makes the land east of Ankara seem as expansive as the Midwest plains that hold the stars I still recognize as home. I'm not nearly as clever a book reviewer to discuss how Kemal writes how he does. So just read it and enjoy the ride.

Kemal was a complicated figure. And while you hear some biographers say that with concern, for me, I think it just means that he was interesting. Oh, gee, wow, he didn't have a clear-cut position on socialism. That's not being difficult, its avoiding the drab talking points of his era. The man's story is fantastic. He loved telling stories as a kid growing up in rural (RURAL!) Turkey, but he was distraught when he woke up one day and couldn't remember the words to his favorite story. He decided he would have to learn to write in order to be a better story teller. There are then stories of him getting a job in the library so he could just read all day and other such fantastic things. They matter less as factual vignettes than as a mythical image of Yashar the author from the hills. The Nation's article on him is fantastic and is a must-read. I went from "OK, I ought to read Kemal" to "I must read him" solely because of that article.

I love how far removed the book is from Istanbul. So many foreigners coming to Turkey focus on Istanbul. And I admit to yes, living here and yes, finding it quite nice. All the same, when I read about how "Istanbul thrives as the new party capital of Europe" all I can think of is "Istanbul is pretty much the most boring city in Europe." Oooh, more couchsurfers looking for love (and/or friction)? Sounds great! Bridge East-West! Live your exotic fantasy without having to learn a word! The fact is Turkey is so much more than Istanbul. And now that Istanbul has welcomed a generation of internal immigrants, the rest of Turkey is coming to Istanbul. This has caused far more panic and fear than a welcoming of a whole new side of cool.

In this book, near none of the characters have names that smack of Turkey. Ok, sure, there's a Memet, an Ibrahim. But even "Ali" seems rare these days. And I have yet to come across an Iraz, a Hatche. Let alone an Abdi or Jaffar. Memed comes to "the big city" that is likely smaller than Adana. Maras is the big town. Nomads make up a significant plot point. We're a long ways from Reina, and I love it. This is as much Turkey as anything else.

While Turkey wrestles or whatever with its identity, it gets turned into an Evren v. Erdogan affair. The rise of Turkey's east, it's businessmen and its politicians is just as important. And it goes far beyond the Kurdish and Armenian plot points. Kemal gives life to the humans on the fringe that have made Turkey grow in its Republican days. He has created the image of the Turkish lower class that Fatih Akin and Nuri Bilge Ceylan have latched on to.

More to the point, Memed, My Hawk reads like a campfire tale told by Cool Grandpa Yashar. There are good guys and bad guys. Beautiful women and wise old crones. For being entirely too realistic, it reads like magical fantasy. Taunts at gunfights, single-minded men, families pushed to their limits...these are not the things of history, these are the tales of now.

Memed, My Hawk is about Turkey and, to paraphrase a friend, says "Bastards!" to Istanbul, says "Bastards!" to Ankara. It thumbs its nose at the foreign correspondent, it would do worse to the modern-day blogger if one could imagine Memed understanding computers. Kemal writes about Turkey and is wrapped up in its legends, its myths, its identity. The American coming in to Turkey can never understand it, especially not from a stone's throw from the Bosphorus. It doesn't matter how strongly they arch their eyebrows, how perfectly they tent their fingers. Kemal, one can say, claims Turkey for the Turks through literature (though he may hate to hear that expression used for him).

All we do is try to explain our impressions to other foreigners. The narratives that we all try to force Turkey into, the way we cram-pack Menderes and Davutoglu into one timeline, are all ways of reflecting what we want Turkey to be. Meanwhile, here's Yashar Bey, flaunting the Turkey we all wish we could capture.

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