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What a wonderful thing it is to travel to distant lands, and far-away times in the hands of a master story teller!  Memed, My Hawk is Yashar Kemal‘s first novel, published in Turkey in 1955.  This New York Review of Books Classics edition uses the impeccable 1961 Edouard Roditi translation and includes a 2005 introduction by Kemal.  John Berger says of him, “Yashar Kemal is a thousand kilometers tall and can make a story of two stones tender and spellbinding.”

It’s hard to know which to praise more, the beautiful images of the natural world, the vivid descriptions of smell,  the direct story-teller simplicity of diction and construction,  a wheel of characters who appear, interact, curse, praise, brutalize, mislead, fight, and die, or the details of rural life in Turkey in the 1920s.  The use of homilies and metaphors from the plains and mountains adds a constant sparkle to the otherwise plain diction and plotting.

The story is, as all timeless stories have been, of an overpowering but ill fated love, a young man in rebellion against injustice and his growth to heroic manhood.  It follows Memed from his harsh  childhood to his rise as a mythological bandit, who bullets can’t touch, who slips out of every trap, who rescues his love from prison, fights battle after battle in the snowy mountains and distributes land to the peasants, giving them heart by his own example.  He is from one of five small villages on the Dikenli — The Plateau of Thistles– at the foot of the Taurus Mountains of south central Turkey,  “a world by itself, with its own laws and customs .  The people of Dikenli know next to nothing of any part of the world beyond their own villages.  Very few have ever ventured beyond the limits of the plateau.”

In the opening pages, Memed, at the age of 11,  is running from the vicious Agha of five villages on the Dikenli. His father has died, and Abdi Agha as the landlord, mayor, police chief and superior court judge, rules the lives of the tenant peasants  living on his land.  Memed has been plowing the Agha’s fields for years.  He is torn apart by thorns and regularly beaten; he is tied to a tree for two nights.  No one can face down the Agha.  After a terrifying night and non-stop running, he finds a kindly couple on the other side of a mountain who are willing to take him in, as their goatherd and adopted son.  After a year or so he begins missing his village and mother.  Herding the goats closer and closer to his village he reveals himself and is dragged back by the Agha.

As punishment the Agha reduces the portion of harvest kept  by Memed and his mother from 1/3 to 1/4 of what they bring in. Memed’s mother begs the Agha:

Don’t do this Agha, we’ll die of hunger this winter!  Don’t!  I kiss your feet, Agha!

The winter is cold and harsh.  Many of the villagers go door to door begging for a bit of wheat or milk.  Memed himself is nearly lifeless, yet:

“Every now and then a tiny spark would light [in his eyes]  and then die, a sharp piercing spark, to be feared like the spark that  that flickers briefly in the eye of a tiger ready to pounce and tear its prey.”

We will be told of this spark often in the course of the book.

Kemal shows time and again how such small villages operate, the enmity between neighbors that can erupt, and then fade away.   One voice calling out in condemnation of another and the others seeming to acquiesce by their silence, yet eventually a friend who will move against the tide and bring some food, or help with the chores.  Often a cunning duplicity is at play.  Lame Ali, a famous tracker, works  both for Abdi Agha and against him, preserving his own life as best he can.  On page after page, rumor and gossip run like wild-fire, informing the villagers, and we the readers, of the state of things: they will run off and be married!  The landlord will kill him! Or later,  He was like a giant!  He strode through town with a pine log in one hand and set the village on fire….he was like a whirlwind!  He was tall like a poplar, and then small again!

The spare story tellers art is marvelously displayed, here with a quick sketch of Memed, his village, and a theory of human growth:

One grows up, develops, matures, according to one’s soil. Memed grew on barren soil.  A thousand and one misfortunes prevented him from ever growing to his full height. His shoulders no longer developed, his arms and legs were like dry branches.

or here,  telling us of Memed’s love for Hatche:

Memed’s eyes lighted up as he found a pair of embroidered stockings [in the chest].  His hand trembled as he bent down to take them.  The smell of wild apples spread everywhere.   As his hand touched the stockings his trembling increased and a flood of warmth went through his heart, a pleasant warmth and softness.  In the shadow of the chest the stockings were dark.  He pulled them out and took them to the light, where the colors became bright. …

Traditionally such stockings are an expression of love.  Memed’s trembling as his hands touched them, his thrill as he brought them to the light, were fully justified.  On such stockings there is always a design of two birds, with their two beaks touching as in a kiss.  Then there are also two trees, with small trunks, each with a single big flower.  The trees stand side by side, their flowers joined as if in a kiss.  Between the two patterns flows a milky-white stream  with red rocks on its bank.  All the colors seem to dance like flames.

Memed and a friend sneak out to see the nearest town, afraid of Abdi Agha’s wrath.  On the way they meet an old man, who, in one of the most necessary parts of such story telling, acts as a prophet and counselor to the young man.  He tells them a story of how Abdi Agha was once robbed and his wife taken away and that Big Ahmet, who may or may not be the old man, the most notorious brigand of the time, brought her back and sent Abdi on his way. In this story within a story,  is the fore-telling of Memed’s coming life, and the guidance for how to live it:

Brigands live by love and fear.  When they inspire only love,  it is a weakness.  When they inspire only fear, they are hated and have no supporters.

In the town they are dazzled by the windows — like crystal palaces!– and hear that there are even greater things beyond. Sherbert can be bought in the streets! Meatballs are sold from little kitchens.  Such things they’ve never known.   They hear that no one man owns all the land around the town, that it is more or less owned by everyone.  And again we know we are being told of Memed’s coming years.  He cannot sleep that night, thinking of all he has learned, above all “that Abdi Agha’s only human, so are we….”

The arc of the story begins to lift when Memed, now 19, and Hatche’s love becomes known to all:

The days went by as their passion grew till it was  full blown.  Their love became a legend in the village. Every night, whatever happened, they would meet.  If not, neither of them could sleep at all. Hatche’s mother once caught them and punished her daughter. It was no use.  Every evening she bound her hand and foot, but in vain.  She put lock after lock on the door; Hatche found a way around every obstacle.

But Hatche is also desired by Abdi Agha’s nephew.  The night finally comes when Hatche does not return home from a tryst.  The desperate mother asks Abdi Agha to help find her.  He erupts in a great rage and tells Lame Ali, the tracker,  to find her.  In the confrontation Memed pulls his pistol and kills the nephew  and wounds Abdi Agha.  He tells Hatche to stay with her mother and flees to join a notorious gang of brigands in the mountains.  It is led by one known as Mad Durdu, who not only robs travelers but strips them of their clothes and sends them on the road, naked and filled with shame

Bent on revenge, Abdi Agha arranges for false witness to testify that Hatche pulled the trigger of the gun that killed her unwanted suitor.  She is taken off to jail in the town whose wonders Memed had told her of.

In the mountains Memed grows in stature despite his young years.  He shoots true, is just with those around him.  After Durdu betrays a trust Memed had made with a nomad chief, and orders the old man to strip naked, Memed has had enough.  Guns are pulled and  the two break off.  Memed sets out with his own gang of three, always after Abdi Agha, but robbing travelers and letting the poor go free.  Believing they have at last killed Abdi — roasted to death in a house put to the torch– they return to the Dikenli and tell the villagers the land is now theirs.

But of course, as in the story of any hero, this cannot be the end.  Like a Saturday serial, there are more battles, more near captures, more wounds.  Memed stages a daring single handed raid and captures Hatche and her cell-mate, Iraz.  They take to the mountains and survive several winters.  She bears a son.  In the last gun-fight she dies.  Iraz takes the child to raise him as her own.  Memed finally takes revenge on Abdi Agha, and then?  As in all such stories, the only possible end:  He disappears:

No news of Slim Memed was ever heard again. No sign or trace was ever found….

What else could happen in a tale of a heroic man of the people, a fighting knight, a masked man on the dry and unforgiving plains?

If you read Memed, My Hawk, you will come across marvelous passages like this.  Memed and his companions are hiding out in the cave of the singer Poor Ali.  He comes in one afternoon and begins to sing.

 He had a low, deep voice. It was as if the sound did not come from within him, but from a thousand years away, from far, from the mountains, from the Chukorova, the sea, laden with the salt tang of the sea, the resin of the pines, the scent of the wild mint. “Come to me,” he sang, “and sooth my affliction, sovereign healer of this world’s woes.”

Wonderful stuff from beginning to end.   Read it, so when Kemal finally wins the Nobel Prize for Literature, for which he is often mentioned, you’ll know why.  Memed, My Hawk is of course not his only work.  The Wind From the Plain trilogy, translated to English by his wife, Thilda Kemal, is the most famous, and has been widely praised.  A fine project for a summer read….

Update: I wish I could recommend the Peter Ustinov 1984 film by the same name, and based on Kemal’s book, but in good conscience I can’t.  Of course much had to be left aside, and compressed but worse Ustinov plays Abdi Agha as a harmless buffoon, and adds scenes with his late-in-the-book protector to make it clear.  His brigands are played in a broad comedic style as well, losing the impact of what they must have meant not only to the peasants and traders of the 1920s, but the newly installed government as well.  One has to admire a director for taking on big and important projects but a good deal was lost in this one.  The filming was done in Yugoslavia, so we don’t even get to see the famed Plateau of Thistles, or the Taurus Mountains.