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Yaşar Kemal: İnce Memed (Memed, My Hawk)

Till Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Yaşar Kemal was by far the best-known Turkish novelist outside Turkey. At least ten of his novels have been translated into English and he has been translated into many other languages. I would regularly tip him for the Nobel Prize though, obviously, my predictions, like most of my predictions for literary prizes, proved wrong. Sadly, his fame seems to have waned outside Turkey in recent years.

This is his most famous novel. He went on to write four books about İnce Memed = (Slim Memed) though this, the first, is by far the best-known. It is not difficult to see why it succeeded – the story of a brave man young who, almost single-handedly, challenges and defeats the powerful but evil landowners, the police and even the government.

The novel is set in and around Çukurova ( it is spelled Chukurova in this book), which more or less corresponds to ancient Cilicia and is located in South-East Turkey. It is remote and agricultural. Memed is a hero. At the start of the novel he is a young man, whose father is dead. He lives with his mother, Deuneh. The system in which they live is almost feudal. Much of the land in their village and the neighbouring four villages is owned by Abdi Agha. (Agha is an honorific title for a master or the like). Abdi, likes other aghas in this book is ruthless and cruel. He makes his tenants work very hard and treats them badly.

Abdi did not get on with Memed’s father and treats him particularly badly. He frequently beats him. Memed cannot, of course, retaliate. Abdi also gives him the worst jobs. In particular he has to plough fields with dense thistles which tear his legs. He works with Dursun, who tells them he has come from a village where this does not happen. As a result, Memed runs away.

He travels what he thinks is a long distance, though it turns out to be quite short. Nevertheless, he comes to another village, where Süleyman takes him in and treats him well, making him a goatherd. He warns Memed not to go beyond the hills, as his village is on the other side and he may well be seen. Despite being well treated, Memed, missing his mother and girlfriend, Hatche, does not heed the advice and goes beyond the hill and speaks to a man who lives on the outskirts of his own village. The man tells others and soon word gets back to Abdi. Abdi comes and drags him back.

There is no immediate punishment but when it comes time to share out the wheat, Deuneh gets much less than usual, barely enough to live on. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that, as far as he is concerned, she can die of starvation. He forbids any of the other villagers to help her, though, of course, they do.

It is not only Memed who is interested in Hatche. Abdi’s nephew, Veli, wants to marry her. Her parents reluctantly agree, partially because they are forced to and partially because it would be very useful for them to be connected to Abdi in this way. Hatche and Memed are naturally very much against it. The couple decide to elope and they do. However, Lame Ali, the best tracker in the village, reluctantly agrees to help Abdi track them down and he does.

Memed has a gun and when Abdi and Veli confront them, Memed fires, killing Veli and wounding Abdi. Memed flees and tells Hatche she should return to the village. Abdi, however, wants his revenge and he makes the villagers swear that they saw Hatche shooting Veli. She is arrested and sent to prison.

The area is plagued with brigands and Memed joins a group led by Durdu. For the rest of the book, Memed is a brigand, an outlaw, hunted by the police and by Abdi and another landowner. Durdu’s style is to take everything his victims have, including all of their clothes, leaving them to return home naked. Memed is not happy with this but has no choice and soon makes a name for himself.

Durdu’s gang are nearly caught by the police and only just manage to escape. When they are helped by a band of gypsies, Durdu tries to rob them. This causes a falling out between Memed and other gang members and the two groups go their separate ways.

Memed soon becomes a local hero, attacking the rich and giving to the poor. Abdi is essentially driven out of the village, but somehow manages to more or less survive. Memed gets wounded but is seemingly impervious to many bullets. When another local landowner treats his tenants badly and when this same local landowner enlists the help of another bandit chief and the police, Memed has multiple fights on his hand.

It is not all straightforward. There are betrayals, traps, allies bribed and bullied, and the inevitable deaths. Memed tried to keep a moral stance at all times but does not always succeed but does, more or less, remain a Turkish Robin Hood.

Kemal keeps the action going, throws in surprises and tells an excellent story. Given Turkey’s past and current history, it is not difficult to see why this book did so well though, of course, wicked landowners are certainly not unique to Turkey nor, indeed, to Turkish literature. If you like a good, old-fashioned novel about good vs evil, the rich vs the poor and justice more or less achieved, you cannot fail to enjoy this book.

Publishing history

First published by Çağlayan Yayinei in 1955
First published in English by Collins and Harvill Press in 1961
Translated by Edouard Roditi