Analysis of Yaşar Kemal’s Memed My Hawk

Memed, My Hawk, which first appeared in Turkish with the original title Ince Memed, is considered one of the most significant novels in Turkish literature. An immediate international success, the novel by Yaşar Kemal’s (1923–2015) has been translated into as many as 40 languages. Memed, My Hawk received its stylistic originality from the author’s successful incorporation of epic and folktale characteristics into the conventions of social realism, or working class ideals. The following description of the city of Adana is just one example of the stylistic quality of the novel: “There’s a city there, Adana, all of clear glass. It sparkles day and night, just like the sun. . . . Trains come and go. On the sea, ships as big as villages go to the other end of the world. . . . If it’s money you want, it pours like a flood in Chukurova. All you’ve got to do is work.” Such hyperbolic idioms and exaggerated statements, typical of folktales, are scattered throughout the narrative that focuses on the plights of south Anatolian peasantry under the oppressive regime of ag˘alık, or landlordship. Moreover, the protagonist himself, Ince Memed, is created out of the legacy of legendary hero-bandits who fought against injustice and thereby gained the sympathy of the oppressed. By the end of the novel, Ince Memed, as the sole protector of the peasants, is believed to be immune even to the bullets he faces.

Yaşar Kemal / Daily Sabah

As for the historical and sociological context of Memed, My Hawk, the novel is set at a period of belated transformation in rural Anatolia from rudimentary agrarian practices into up-to-date and socially promising structures of production. With the transition in 1950 from one-party rule to democracy in Turkey, and with the simultaneous introduction of machinery in agriculture, there emerged an expectation for land reform that would abolish the privileged position of the landlords vis-à-vis the poor peasants and thereby lead to an egalitarian and stable agrarian structure. This expectation, however, was not easy to fulfill. To the contrary, the landlords attempted to increase their power by establishing political alliances with conservative forces under the new regime of multiparty rule. The landlords also sought to monopolize the use of machinery in agriculture. As a result, land reform in rural Anatolia would remain merely a utopian dream for years to come. Much of the creative work in post1950 Turkey by politically committed authors centered around exposing the contradictions of social life in Anatolia and fulfilling the utopia of a welfare society within the boundaries of the novel.

More specifically, Memed, My Hawk is a bildungsroman that narrates the evolution and change of a subaltern figure, Ince Memed, from a rebellious but naive adolescent into an experienced brigand who wages a successful war against Abdi Agha and other landlords in the Chukurova plain. The opening chapters begin with Memed’s attempt to escape from Abdi Agha’s village to another place where “they don’t beat children, they don’t force them to plow.” He looks not only for a new place to live but also for a new identity. On the road to escape, Ince Memed coins a new name for himself (Kara Mistik) and imagines a world without Abdi Agha. Nevertheless, his hopes quickly vanish when he realizes that Abdi Agha’s village is still “just behind the mountain” and that he cannot leave his mother to the mercy of the Agha. He eventually returns to the village; this, however, does not quell Abdi Agha’s rage against him and his mother. The Agha deprives them from having enough grain to survive the winter, then takes three quarters of all that Memed and his mother produce.

Another moment of hope emerges when Ince Memed falls in love with Hatche (Hatçe). Memed, 18 years old now, wants to establish a new life with his beloved. His clandestine excursion to the city with his friend Mustafa shows Memed the possibility of another world than that of Abdi Agha—a world not defi ned by feudal relations, “a paradise” where “there is no Agha.” In the city, Memed feels “free, unfettered, light as a bird” and arrives at the conclusion that Abdi Agha is “just an ant” and his village is but “a spot” in the greatness of the world. He dreams of settling in the city with Hatche and his mother. This dream too would shatter when Abdi Agha opposes the marriage and engages Hatche to his nephew. Refusing another defeat from Abdi Agha, Memed elopes with Hatche. The Agha and his men track down the couple. After fi erce shooting, Memed kills the nephew and wounds Abdi Agha and manages to escape to the mountains.

In the mountains Memed is introduced to the art of brigandage. Through his apprenticeship under Mad Durdu, Memed grows to be a part of the respectful line of bandits who served as the protectors of the poor and dispossessed. As a result of his eventual rebellion against corrupted practices of his leader Mad Durdu and his fi ght against other brigands who side with the landlords, Ince Memed becomes the true restorer of the traditional codes of banditry. The crucial moment of translating these codes into a more modern form of social revolutionary consciousness manifests itself with Memed’s decision to distribute Abdi Agha’s land among the villagers as an act of abolishing feudal landlordship. This is the moment of a collective uprising. The villagers get together to burn the thistle fi elds that they had to endure for years. Gaiety and joy spread across the plain as the crowd follows the flames, dancing in groups.

Yaşar Kemal (Emrah Gurel/Associated Press)

The novel, however, does not end with that euphoric moment. The collective spirit suddenly diminishes when the villagers learn that Abdi Agha is still alive and plans to take revenge against the villagers. The novel implies that a collective transformation on the part of the community is not a genuine possibility yet. The feudal structure is so deeply rooted in the rural communities that even Ince Memed’s endeavors cannot transcend these self-imposed limits. Even though he finally kills Abdi Agha and is canonized by the villagers as a legendary hero, he leaves “no trace, no sign” behind him.

To this day, Memed, My Hawk continues to be the most widely read work of Kemal. It has inspired the imagination of many young readers of the 1968 generation seeking socially progressive change. It stands as an important example of what the Brazilian literary critic Antonio Candido called “the literature of underdevelopment.” Along with the literary awards it has won, Memed, My Hawk has also been adapted to other cultural media such as theater, film, cartoon, and painting.

Bissinger, Manfred, and Daniela Hermes, eds. Zeit, sich einzumischen: die Kontroverse um Günter Grass und die Laudatio auf Yashar Kemal in de Paulskirche. Göttingen: Steidl, 1998.
Kemal, Yasar. Memed, My Hawk. Translated by Edouard Roditi. New York: Pantheon Books, 1961.
———. The Sea-Crossed Fisherman. Translated by Thilda Kemal. New York: Braziller, 1985.
———. Seagull. Translated by Thilda Kemal. New York: Pantheon Books, 1981.
———. The Undying Grass. Translated by Thilda Kemal. London: Collins & Harvill Press, 1977.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis

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