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.
In 1995, he was prosecuted on charges of separatist propaganda for his support of Kurdish dissidents and received a suspended sentence.
Kemal had been in hospital in Istanbul since mid-January with respiratory and cardiac issues, Turkish media reported. His death was caused by organ failure.
Known for his lyrical approach, Kemal, who helped develop the "village novel", championed peasants and wrote stirringly of the natural and manmade disasters they faced.
"All my life, my only dream was to write a little bit more, a little bit better," Kemal said in 2012 after the completion of his final novel.
Editing by Stephen Powell