On Monday it was time for Turkey to bid goodbye to its greatest storyteller, whose life was dedicated to digging deep into the soul of people, the shadows of their past, the suppressed secrets of the suffering and their dreams for happiness.
Yaşar Kemal with his huge heart and mind displayed an amazing capacity to embrace the existence of each and everyone who has roots in Anatolia and Thrace, the vast lands called Turkey. The more he did during the seven decades he was writing, the closer he brought those stories of humankind, competing with all those written by Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Chekov, Amado, Marquez, Pratolini, Steinbeck… He believed in telling stories, similar to Cervantes, whom he mentioned as the grandmaster of them all.
Much will be written about his vast oeuvre, adding to the ones that filled bookshelves worldwide. I’ll only mention that for me his masterpiece is “The Wind from the Plain,” followed by his dreamy “The Legend of the Thousand Bulls” and will leave the detailed reviews to literary experts.
Here is where I will get personal, since Kemal was more than a writer for me. He was a longtime neighbor of my late uncle, Mustafa Baydar, who had worked as the chief copy editor at the Cumhuriyet daily.
These two men had known each other since the early 1950s. When my uncle moved with his family to a rather remote district, Basınköy (whose name could be translated as Pressville), Kemal and his wife, Tilda, were already there. For over two decades since 1963 they lived in the same apartment block.
This meant that my two cousins were seen by Kemal as part of the family. Having a childlike, joyous, mischievous and naïve mind, he loved children, loved to play with them, made kites for them and told them endless stories.
I will always remember him as a man of great memory, possibly one with the greatest memory I have ever met, full of jokes and frequent laughter and a chatterbox full of surprises.
“Uncle Yaşar,” as many of those kids in Basınköy called him at the time, was a man who symbolized the entire world to everyone he met. He never, ever patronized anyone. As my cousin remembered, “He was always keen on levelling with anyone he met from all walks of life.”
In other words, he was truly, inevitably made of the stuff that marked Balzac, Gordimer, Tolstoy or Naguib Mahfouz as the best in the global family of authors, recounting obsessively about the human condition just as how Kemal committed his life to.
Though I met him whenever I visited my cousins in Basınköy, I was able to get to know him more deeply when we met in Sweden years later. Whenever we saw each other, his was a seemingly endless narrative on his literary masters, his childhood in southern Anatolia and, more interesting than anything else, his recitals of ancient ballads and elegies, whose origins were from Alevis, Turkmens, Kurds, Assyrians and Armenians. He could keep you mesmerized for hours, coming up with one unknown song after the other.
His heart was beating all the time with and for the left, although he became more and more disillusioned with the self-destructive infighting which led to its implosion.
In an interview I conducted with him in 1995 when he was being tried for “inciting hatred” for speaking out for Kurdish rights and their dignity, he told me what he felt was wrong with Turkey’s left:
“It failed to unite with the people. When failing to empathize, to think deeply about people, remaining shallow in its own culture. … Which mistake, among so many, should I mention? In Turkey, each and every socialist has behaved like a one-man party. For God’s sake, Yavuz, enough: We are mired in mistakes, all of us!”
“Uncle Yaşar” was, in his heart as vast as the whole universe, the refuge for all those in these lands who suffer day after day, waiting in vain and passing on their dreams to the next generation. Born in the same year as the republic, he was the soul of Turkey and with him gone, a large part of the soul of Turkey is also gone.
“Whoever is preventing the happiness of my people, I am against that person with all my life and art,” he used to say.
May he rest in peace.