Celebrated Turkish novelist Yasar Kemal dead at 91

Sat Feb 28, 2015 12:50pm EST
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By Ayla Jean Yackley

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Yasar Kemal, one of Turkey's greatest writers who celebrated the lives of the downtrodden and whose works were translated into 40 languages, died on Saturday. He was 91 years old.

An ethnic Kurd, he was born Kemal Sadik Gokceli in a village in southeastern Turkey, only weeks before the Turkish Republic was founded upon the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.

Kemal's birthplace, the fertile Cukurova plain, was the setting for most of his stories, including his best-known work, "Memed, My Hawk" from 1955, about a bandit hero who exacts revenge on a cruel overlord. The novel eventually earned him a nomination for a Nobel Prize in 1973.

"No writer can be a great novelist without their own Cukurova," Kemal once said.

Tragedy touched his life at an early age. When he was five, he witnessed his father's death at the hands of an orphan the family had adopted. This served as the basis of his 1980 novel "Salman the Solitary".

A middle-school dropout, Kemal was a farm laborer and factory worker before he acquired a typewriter and eventually became a journalist. His literary influences included Tolstoy, Chekhov and Stendhal.

The late filmmaker Elia Kazan, who was also born in Turkey, said of his friend: "Kemal is a storyteller in the oldest tradition, that of Homer, spokesman for a people who had no other voice."

Once a leading member of the Marxist Workers' Party, Kemal, who bore a squint after losing his right eye as a small child in a knife accident, was repeatedly arrested for his political activities.   Continued...

Turkish writer Yasar Kemal (R) gives autographs after a press conference at the 49th  Germany bookfair in Frankfurt October 18, 1997.  REUTERS/Files