Social commentator, novelist Yasar Kemal dies at 91

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Social commentator, novelist Yasar Kemal dies at 91

ANKARA - Yasar Kemal, one of Turkey’s best-known novelists whose focus on social injustices brought him into conflict with authority, died in Istanbul on Saturday. He was 91.

Kemal, best known for his first novel, “Ince Memed” or “Memed, My Hawk,” also turned his pen to promoting Marxism during his early years and defending the rights of minorities in Turkey, including the Kurdish minority of which he was part.

Kemal died at Istanbul’s Capa Hospital where he was admitted on Jan. 14 and being treated in its intensive care unit for multiple organ failure, Dr. Mehmet Akif Karan said.

“Memed,” published in 1955, was based on the troubled feudal relations in Turkey’s southern, agrarian regions where Kemal grew up. Reflecting the author’s leftist views, the book’s young peasant-turned-brigand hero takes a stand against injustices suffered by villagers at the hands of powerful landlords.

The character of Memed was drawn in part from Kemal’s memory of his mother’s brother, an outlaw named Mayro - “the best-known outlaw in the eastern Anatolia, Iran and Caucasus areas.”

“Mayro was killed when he was only 25,” Kemal said in an interview with French author Alain Bosquet. “I have heard many lullabies and a lot of national poetry that depict the bravery and heroism of Mayro. Mayro’s adventurous life was quite an inspiration to me when I was a child, and his footprints can clearly be seen in most of my novels.”

“Memed” was first published in installments in Cumhuriyet newspaper in 1953 and 1954 where Kemal was a journalist. The book won Turkey’s Varlik literary prize in 1956 and it was widely translated, as were most of the more than 35 other books he wrote. On its strength, the struggling first novelist found his name circulated as a possible candidate for the Nobel literature prize.

“It was one of the coldest Istanbul winters ever. I had no money to put wood in the stove,” Kemal said in a speech in 2003 at Bilkent University, recalling the time he wrote the novel. “Yet, I just pretended that the fire was going strong; I covered myself in a ripped blanket, and typed away on an old typewriter that was missing many keys. That’s how I wrote the ‘Ince Memed,’ and this novel is the best memory I kept from that house I could not pay the rent to.”

Kemal’s ability to delve into human nature and bring out the universal traits in his characters made his novels accessible to all sections of society. “Memed” and eight other novels were made into films.

“My adventures are aimed at exploring the mystery of the human,” he said at an award ceremony at the presidential palace in 2008.

In an interview with The Associated Press in 1996, Kemal recalled hearing his father sing Kurdish songs on a hilltop overlooking their village in the southern province of Adana. These were sagas of Kurdish heroism - of wars, lost sons and migrations in past centuries.

However, Kemal didn’t promote his Kurdish background and few people knew he was a Kurd. But he did speak out during clashes between autonomy-seeking Kurdish guerrillas and Turkish troops in mid-1990s. Kemal was tried in 1995 under anti-terror laws but acquitted for an article he wrote for the German magazine Der Spiegel, accusing the Turkish army of destroying Kurdish villages. AP

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