Ince Memed, Parts I and II, by Yashar Kemal

I couldn’t leave Turkey without checking into these great epics, published as Memed, My Hawk and They Burn the Thistles in English translation. They take place in the Taurus mountains, just after the first World War, when the Ottomans have been banished and all the boundaries redrawn. Mustafa Kemal has driven out the French and abolished the feudal system. However, like the carpetbaggers that swarm in after any war, a few newly rich men have started acquiring land and power, setting themselves up as aghas or lords. When the villagers could no longer be tricked out of their land, the aghas beat and tortured the holdouts or brought in brigands to burn the villagers’ homes and steal their horses.

We first meet Ince Memed, Slim Memed, as a young boy running away from home. After his father died, the local agha beat the boy and his mother and took their land, condemning them to be serfs on his land. When the agha finds Memed, he subjects him and his mother to an even greater punishment: instead of taking two-thirds of their laboriously scythed and hand-threshed wheat, the agha takes three-quarters and threatens the other villagers not to give them a single grain. Although some of their neighbors disobey the injunction, the two are left to starve until they finally surrender and give their single cow and its calf to the agha. Later, when Memed has grown, the agha takes even the youth’s fiance to be his own nephew’s bride.

Memed’s struggle against this cruel despotism leads him to the mountains to become a brigand, first joining a band that is not in the pay of an agha and then leading his own small band. Eventually he becomes a great hero to the people of all the villages, a Robin Hood who cannot be shot and who inspires some of them to fight back. Memed finds his fame a burden and, in the second novel, is plagued by a sense of futility when the agha he kills is replaced by another who is even worse. “‘Why struggle?'” he asks old Suleyman, the man who had taken him in and adopted him back when Memed had first run away. “‘It is right to struggle,'” Suleyman replies.

These novels, separately and together are great reads. In them, the elements of a novel are equally strong: the enthralling plot carried me forward like a river in spate; the complex emotions and motivations of the characters are explored in ways that are integral to the story; and the settings—the plains, the mountains, the streets of the town—are described in vivid detail: the feel of the mud sucking at your boots, the color of the thistle fields at sunset, the cold of a mountain cave in winter, the bees and butterflies and green snakes.

And behind it all the eternal theme: good versus evil, the risk and damage done to the hero who stands up, the gradual rise of an oppressed people against men whom greed has turned into tyrants. Memed compares the people to a thousand-headed dragon: “Cut off the thousand heads and a whole forest of heads emerged.”

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