The "eloquent and daring storyteller" of the Turkish literary world has had a defining influence on several generations with "Memed, my Hawk" and other epic novels: he has received numerous nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

By Cornelius Bischoff

At the age of eight, Yaşar Kemal, born Kemal Sadik Gökçeli in around 1923, was already well known as a singer and poet in his birthplace, the village of Hemite, north-east of Adana in the southern Taurus Mountains. The locals had christened him “Asik Kemal” – Kemal, the bard. As a young man, he travelled to Adana and eked out a living doing odd jobs, working as a shepherd and guarding the water on rice fields, as a substitute teacher at the village school, or as a letter writer for the illiterate outside the famous New Mosque. From Adana, he headed to Istanbul and began to write reportages on the exploitative practices of the Aghas, the landowners in Çukurova, his home region in Central Anatolia, before becoming a successful novelist. The name Yaşar Kemal was originally a pseudonym – or rather, an alias – which he used when publishing his reportages in the daily newspaper “Cumhuriyet”.

First encounters with Yaşar Kemal

I first got to know Kemal through his novels: in March 1955, a good friend of mine – the well-known painter Orhan Peker, who passed away all too soon – sent me a small book entitled “Teneke”. Literally translated, this means “tin”; a free translation could be “tin can”. I had grown up in Istanbul and Çorum and was always eager to read new publications from Turkey. The German translation, however, which came out in 1978, was called “Anatolischer Reis” (Anatolian Rice). I would have preferred “Tin Drums”, but there was already another German novel with a similar title: “The Tin Drum” by Günter Grass, published in 1959.


The lawyer Cornelius Bischoff has worked as a literary translator since 1978. He spent part of his youth in Turkey and was interned in the Turkish city of Çorum from 1944 to 1945. He has received a number of prizes for his work, such as the Fellowship Award for Literature and Literary Translation of the Hanseatic City of Hamburg, and was awarded a certificate of merit from the Turkish Ministry for Culture.

© KulturForum / Cornelius Bischoff, Istanbul, October 2010

By Altan Gökalp

Orphaned, afflicted by a stutter, one-eyed: this triad of features characterizes Odin, the most powerful God of the Norse people. It also characterizes the heroes of Turkish legends. These three weaknesses motivate all of these different heroic figures to take a stand against the powerful, adversaries and supernatural forces. The same triad also characterizes the inimitable writer, Yaşar Kemal. He suffered from a stutter as a boy and today has a masterful command of language. He lost an eye as a schoolboy, but can nevertheless create extraordinary images and colors. And in many respects, he could be described as an orphan. The enigmatic nature of this plight finds expression in many different aspects of his life: from his personal friendships to politics, from his struggles to his inner compulsion to write, to tell stories.


Translated from the Turkish [into German] by Sabine Adatepe

Prof. Dr. Altan Gökalp (1942–2010), Director of the French Centre for Scientific Research CNRS, translated many of Peace Prize holder Yaşar Kemal’s works into French. His most recent publications included “Harems, Mythe et Réalité” and a translation of Yaşar Kemal’s version of “Dede Korkut” (with Louis Bazin).

© KulturForum / Altan und Mathias Gökalp, Paris, 2001

Extract from an essay in the booklet accompanying the film series “Human Landscapes – Portraits of Six Turkish Authors”, produced and published by the Turkish-German Forum of Culture.

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