Yaşar Kemal (1923-2015)


Yaşar Kemal was one of Turkey’s leading authors, before anyone had heard of Orhan Pamuk. He was also the first Turkish author I read. It was Kemal’s Wind from the Plain trilogy that I loved. I read the first book in 1999, during one of my times living in Istanbul. There was an English-language bookshop on Divan Yolu, the main street that runs through Sultanahmet, which is the popular tourist area that houses the main historical buildings and other significant spots. We lived nearby; to my mind there’s no point living in Istanbul unless you are near that area.

The books in the bookshop were hideously expensive but such a good selection, you knew you’d struggle to find them elsewhere. I have one called The Turkish Embassy Letters by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu; also The Imperial Harem of the Sultans, Memoirs of Leyla (Saz) Hanımefendi and Portrait of a Turkish Family by Irfan Orga (especially fascinating). All fabulous and all consumed. But it was the Yaşar Kemal that I somehow came across, and became besotted with. It was published in the early to mid sixties and while there is a quaintness to the prose, and sometimes expressions that seem clichéd to the modern reading eye, also (for that time) there is an edginess. I’ve just transcribed the chapter below (apologies for terrible formatting; I can’t seem to drive WordPress in a way that gives me any control of how the text looks. I hate it) and reading it, it has infected my brain once more, and I think it will replace my current re-read of Pamuk’s SNOW, which seems to be dragging while at the same time a bit over-stuffed with ideas. I loved SNOW when I first read it but maybe that was largely because I felt relieved I’d managed a Pamuk. I’d tried and failed with My Name is Red, also The Black Book. I’ve since read and loved his The Museum of Innocence and Silent House. There’s another one coming out this year I think. Exciting. A Pamuk is something to celebrate.



The whirling thistle is here again. Go, take it to the villagers! No, he tried to persuade himself, this can’t be. These are only stray thistles. The cotton can’t have ripened yet in the Chukurova plain. Something’s wrong this year with the roots of these whirling thistles. The worms may have been eating the cursed things, or perhaps the field-mice have been at them. They keep breaking off and blowing over when it’s still much too early for that.

He was sitting in the sun leaning against the wall of the house, his legs stretched out, a bitter expression on his long shrivelled face. His dirty white beard straggled over his breast and his grizzled tufted eyebrows jutted over his tiny green eyes, but his head was quite bald. The bones of his huge bare feet, tapering into black jagged nails, could be counted. His shalvar* and shirt of coarse hand-woven cotton had been patched so often that nothing could be seen of the original material.

A kid hovered around him and brushed his hand. Farther away, an excited hen was bustling about followed by a brood of almost immaterial soft yellow down that wriggled in the dust. Old Halil loved to watch the newly-hatched fluffy chicks warming up to the earth and the sun more than anything in the world. But now he only raised his head occasionally at the hen’s clamour and grunted: ‘The plague on you, stupid fowl. What’s all this fuss!’ Then his chin dropped on to his breast again.

What if the whirling thistle blows right up to my door, he mused. What if the cotton bolls are bursting open in the Chukurova and the whole wide plain is overblown in white, there’s no strength left in my knees. I can’t walk down to the Chukurova plain this year. I just can’t.

The day had mellowed into afternoon when he straightened up painfully and called to his daughter-in-law:
‘Woman, bring me some water.’
There came no answer from within the house.
‘Woman, may you remain fallow!’ he cursed. ‘No one here to give a man a drop of water. A body had much better die than grow old!’ He went inside, filled a bowl and drank with trembling hands, spilling the water on his beard. At eventide he made his way to the top of the hill. A haze was settling over the distant steppe and the vast stretches were turning grey. He fancied he saw a cluster of whirling thistles being tossed by the wind.

The whirling thistle’s here again and there’s nothing you can do about it; the thought pursued him. if you don’t let the villagers know that the cotton is ripe in the Chukurova, then they’ll eat you alive, Halil, they’ll make kebab out of you! Suppose they arrive too late, long after the labourers of the other villages have picked all the cotton… What will you tell them, Halil? That your reckoning went astray?

When the whirling thistle is blown over across the wide steppe, Old Halil knows that the cotton is bursting ripe in the Chukurova plain. Each year at this time, perhaps even earlier, Old Halil picks up one of the thistles that have come drifting from the steppe, examines its twigs and thorns and then heads for the Muhtar’s** house.
‘Hail, son of the old Headman Hidir, the whirling thistle’s come. I’ve seen a mass of them soaring like a flock of cranes in the direction of Mount Tekech. Tell the villagers to get ready within three days.’ And each year at this signal the villagers pack off for the Chukurova cotton plain.

All through that night Old Halil was kept awake by a stream of disturbing images. Chilling autumnal winds licking the grey earth, birds cowering in their shelters, their necks drawn in… The twittering of partridges is heard no longer. Gone are the traces left by their red legs at the foot of the bushes. Whistling gusts are uprooting the thistles and hurling them from hill to hill. Huge thistles, basket-like, are swirling over the bare hill-tops in the pale sky, filling the valleys and glens and overflowing on to the roads and plains.

These villagers, have they no sense at all? he fumed. Have they no eyes, no ears, no judgement? What would they have done these thirty years without me? Just suppose Old Halil were dead. Just suppose… Well then, you fellows, wouldn’t you have gone down to the cotton just the same? Why, you beggars, not a single one of you has ever said to me, ‘Bless you Uncle Halil, thanks to you we have always got down to the cotton in good time.’ Well, what if I went amiss this year. Any human being might. Am I what I used to be? You can see for yourselves how weak I’ve grown. How could I know whether the cotton’s ripe in the Chukurova, how could I? I just can’t, you cuckolds!

These thoughts nagged him til morning and when he rose, his eyes were red and smarting as if they had been rubbed with pepper. He looked out into the distance. A cold wind was blowing.
‘The men in this village are all asses,’ he cried. ‘All asses!’
A man of over fifty with greying hair and beard moved up to him.
‘What’s that, Father?’
Old Halil ignored him.
‘Father, isn’t the cotton ripe yet?’
Old Halil did not answer.
‘For heaven’s sake, Father, what’s come over you these days? A knife couldn’t prise your mouth open!’
Old Halil raised his brows menacingly and looked his son up and down.
‘May Allah shower you with curses! Look at him, damn him, standing there and talking to me like that!’ he cried out angrily. ‘If you’d been like other people’s sons, would I have been in this state?’
Old Halil rumbled on and on until his son walked off exasperated and he was left alone with his thoughts. The whirling thistle’s here again. There’s nothing you can do but take it to the Muhtar.

He rose and stretched his aching limbs. Then, leaning heavily on his stick, he hobbled off towards the village. He decided to take a roundabout course to avoid going past the house of the Molla’s son who would pester him again with that dirty smirk on his face: ‘Well, Uncle Halil, how many days left before your whirling thistles flock in? When do we start off for the Chukurova? We’re all at your mercy, Uncle Halil. You could, if you wished, keep us from the cotton until it was too late, until mid-winter, eh, Uncle Halil?’ The son of a bitch, raged Old Halil. If he’s a man, why doesn’t he try and tell us when the cotton’s ready?

He was pausing for breath at every other step. Have I really grown so old, he asked himself. God knows, I must be over eighty now. But it isn’t old age, it’s hunger. That bitch of a daughter-in-law of mine doesn’t feed me properly. Hides all the food where I can’t find it. That’s why I feel so weak. Down in the Chukurova there’ll be water-melons, tomatoes… just what I need. But how can I get to the Chukurova? Ah, Ali, you’re a good lad, you’re the son of my old friend Ibrahim, but… If it weren’t for that mother of yours, that old sow… She was the cause of your father’s death, by Allah she was, the harridan!

As he drew near Long Ali’s door he struck his stick twice against the ground. Ali’s house had been built by his grandfather. It was a low, unplastered hut made of earth and large unhewn stones. He hoped Ali was alone. It would be no use talking to him when Meryemdje, his old whore of a mother, was at home.
‘Ali, my child,’ he called softly. ‘Ali.’
‘Welcome, Uncle Halil,’ Ali called back as he came out immediately. ‘Won’t you come in?’
Old Halil slumped down on a log. ‘Come here beside me,’ he said.
Ali sat down near him without a word. For over a week now the old man had been visiting him regularly. He had talked and talked, and then had left without coming to the point. Ali had guessed what he was driving at, but what could he do…

‘There’s still plenty of time for the cotton,’ began Old Halil. ‘The weather’s been cold this year and the cotton will bloom late. Late or early, how can I go down to the Chukurova, Ali, with these failing legs? Curse this old age! It’s the greatest misfortune on earth. I’ll never be able to make it. Even on my way here, I stopped ten times to get my breath. My legs shake as if caught in an earthquake, and they ache, and they twitch… I’d like to see anybody else go down to the Chukurova in such a wretched state.’
He paused, his eyes on the ground. A small thistle blown on the wind settled at his feet. He flicked it away and the wind swept it afar. When he raised his head, his small eyes were wet.
‘Ah,’ he said in low quavering tones, ‘your father, may he rest in peace, may a plenteous light fall upon his grave… your father Ibrahim… ah, if he had been alive… Why didn’t I die instead? Why didn’t we both die together? I should never have survived my Ibrahim. A man can’t count on his neighbour, or on his wife, or even on his own son. No, only on a friend. Such a virtuous man Ibrahim was! Virtuous and brave. And such a good thief too! He could steal a man’s nose off his face while he slept! He used to take me with him on his thieving expeditions and it was he who taught me how to steal. Thanks to that I’ve always been able to live comfortably without depending on niggards. But now that I’m old, and Ibrahim dead… Curse this old age! A man should be killed before his back starts to bend. But there’s no help for it. This is the way Allah made this world, and He should have known better. Look, Ali, I’ve thought of staying here in the village all alone, but people would think I’ve gone crazy, and anyway I’d die of hunger. How can a man live all by himself in a deserted village? It’s not just five days or ten days. Two whole months! A man may be attacked by the wolves. Even the ants can make a feast of him and pick his eyes hollow. Has anyone ever remained in the village during cotton season? Not in my lifetime. Tell me, has anyone, ever?’
‘No, never,’ replied Ali wearily.
Old Halil felt that Ali had been moved by his words. His voice rang triumphantly.
‘Ah, if  only I had died with my Ibrahim and not seen such days! Or if I had a son like you… But Allah only gave me that snivelling Hasan. A fat lot of good he did me! Hasan hasn’t got a horse, or even a donkey which I could ride. Ah, I remember when Ibrahim first brought your pure-bred to this house. He had stolen it from a Circassian agha, way up on the Long Plateau and with Allah’s blessing it has served you well for years. Yes, Ali my son, Hasan hasn’t got a horse like you have. I wouldn’t call that good-for-nothing a son!’ He broke off and leaned forward expectantly.
Ali was scraping the earth with a twig. He could not bring himself to raise his head but he felt Old Halil’s gaze piercing him like pointed nails.

At last the old man rose. He staggered away, more stooped than ever. Is there any good, he thought bitterly, any help at all to be expected from one born of that bitch Meryemdje? This can’t be Ibrahim’s offspring. Who knows by whom Meryemdje got him… Ungrateful wretches, who was it brought that horse to you, eh? If no one else knows it, Meryemdje does. She knows her husband wouldn’t have hurt a fly, much less steal a horse! Fie, you fickle world! May your wheel be broken, Fortune, to have reduced Old Halil to begging from door to door just for a short ride to the Chukurova! Go your way, you harlot world! Let those who enjoy your bounties sing your praise. Oh dear, my head is swimming! And my back! Oh dear, oh dear, my back’s breaking!

Ali looked after him. The old man’s legs were weaving into each other limply. He can never go down to the Chukurova all the way on foot, he thought as he scraped the earth furiously with his twig.  At this moment he heard his mother’s voice, fraught with pent-up anger: ‘What did he have to say this time, the old hound?’
‘What could he say, poor man,’ replied Ali sadly. ‘He didn’t put it in so many words, but he meant… You know.’
‘Never!’ cried Meryemdje. ‘As long as I’m alive and breathing, that old carcass, that stinking pig carrion, will never ride my horse. Last year I let him, just for your sake. Then I saw my Ibrahim in a dream. “Why you old Meryemdje,” he reproached me, “how can you let that man ride my horse? I could not rest in my grave all the time he was on it.” “Ibrahim,” I said, “it’s done now. It was your son’s wish, how could I refuse it? Forgive me.” No, no Ali, never again. Not even if the Saint from the Hollow Rock were to rise from his grave and bid me do it. Go your way, Saint, I’d say, and mind your saintship. Don’t go meddling with a poor mortal’s horse. And anyway, Ali, the horse is sick. It’s much weaker than Old Halil. I doubt if it will be able to carry me this year. Its ears are drooping and its nose is running. I warn you, Ali, you’ll have to slit my throat open before you put him on my horse again.’
Ali rose, brushing his shalvar trousers with his hand.
‘He never even once asked for a ride, the poor fellow,’ he said with a deep sigh. ‘He only spoke about his failing strength.’
Meryemdje’s eyes flashed. ‘If he didn’t ask to-day, he’ll do so tomorrow. Mark my words. He’s so brazen, he’ll make me get off and ride the horse himself. He’s the devil’s own son, I know that and the great Allah knows it too. There are things I’ve never told you, Ali. Don’t make me speak. I just pray that his dirty heart be riddled with deadly bullets.’
‘Don’t say that, Mother dear. I can’t help pitying him with all my heart. How will the poor man ever walk all that long road? He might die on the way.’
‘Let him die,’ shouted Meryemdje. ‘I don’t care what happens to him as long as he doesn’t ride my horse.’
Ali tossed away the twig impatiently. ‘If only I were sure that the horse could carry both of you I’d let him ride behind you.’

At these words Meryemdje flew into a towering rage. It was impossible to make out what she was saying from the torrent of abuse that poured from her lips. Ali was alarmed. ‘No, no! I won’t put him on the horse,’ he cried, clasping her arm. ‘I swear I won’t.’ Meryemdje calmed down a little. ‘If ever you do, I shall go away to a country that neither you nor anyone else has ever heard of. I’ll go, and the white milk you suckled from my breasts will be a curse to you.’

She was a tall woman, but bent with age. Her features were handsome with high wide cheekbones tapering to a pointed chin, and her big black eyes must have been large and fine in her youth. Her face was a maze of little wrinkles and her cheeks sank into a toothless mouth. From under her headcloth a few wisps of white hair fell over her brow.
‘Don’t you ever utter the word horse again. That old pig can come and come again as often as he likes. That’s that!’ She stormed off into the hut.

Old Halil came back several times. With each visit he would complain even more about his health and would praise Ali’s father still more highly, but each time he would find he was only butting against a wall. There were four horses in the village. Old Halil visited the other three owners as well and plaintively recounted his misfortunes, but he would not humble himself to the extent of asking forthright for a ride, and not one of the owners made the offer he was expecting so eagerly. They would listen to him uneasily and then slink away shamefaced. The days went by and Old Halil scoured the village desperately like a drunken man. Death, he thought. Death would be better than this. It seemed to him that the villagers had nothing else to do but pester him.
‘Isn’t it time yet, Uncle Halil?’
‘Last year at this time? Why, we’d been picking cotton for days!’
‘Is it because the weather’s been cold this year that the cotton’s not yet ripe?’
‘Uncle Halil, the valleys and glens are filled with whirling thistles.’
‘You may be wrong this year, Uncle Halil. Only Allah is infallible.’
‘Stop it, you fellows, don’t pick on the man like this. When has Old Halil ever failed us? He must know what he’s doing.’
‘Well, there’s something fishy about all this. Old Halil has been acting funny this year.’
‘Nonsense, Old Halil never makes a mistake.’
‘Tell us, for heaven’s sake, Uncle Halil, how much longer before we set off?’

He would parry the onslaught as best he could, lying, cursing, or pretending he had not heard, but the thought was there, unremitting. The whirling thistle’s here again and there’s nothing you can do about it. He was concerned. Screwing up his courage, he finally made his way to the Muhtar’s house. Each year he would rush through the village, laughing and almost dancing with joy, brandishing the whirling thistle as he went. This time he was hard put to it to make a show of rejoicing.
The villagers watched him as he wended his way in a halting gait.
‘Well, the cotton’s ripe at last,’ they said. ‘It’s ripe, yes, but the past year has told on Old Halil. He can hardly walk at all, the poor fellow, let alone run.’

The Muhtar met him at the door. ‘How very late the cotton’s been this year,’ he remarked, smiling pointedly. Then without waiting for an answer. ‘I didn’t expect this of you, Uncle Halil. Conspiring against me with Long Ali and the others! Shame on you, shame on your white beard!’
‘Mind your words, Muhtar,’ Old Halil growled. ‘You can’t talk to me like that.’ In the past if anyone had spoken to him in this way he would have crushed him. But the old spirit was not there.
Each year as he handed the thistle to the Muhtar he would cry joyfully: ‘The whirling thistle’s here again. I’ve seen masses of them gliding through the sky like a flock of cranes bound for Mount Tekech.’ The Muhtar would then joke: ‘What a story-teller you are, Uncle!’ And the villagers around them would roar with laughter. Then the public-crier would be summoned to proclaim the news and the villagers would start making ready for the journey. But this time Old Halil’s tidings dropped lifelessly from his lips, the Muhtar did not joke and the villagers did not laugh. The elders silently reflected that this was a sure sign of ill-omen. Even the voice of the public-crier as he called out the news was listless, with not a trace of the ringing tones of the past years.
The villagers were disturbed. ‘There’s something afoot this year,’ they whispered to one another. ‘Let’s hope it bodes no evil.’ After this Old Halil shut himself up in his house and was not seen again in the village until the day of the big meeting.

* Baggy trousers worn by both men and women peasants in Turkey.

** Muhtar: the representative of the Government in the village, elected by the villagers themselves. Replaces the former “headman” of the Ottoman Empire.

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