Memed, My Hawk


John wrote to me from Istanbul a while ago saying I should read Yashar Kemal’s Memed, My Hawk. There were no copies in the public library here, nor in the university library, and so I turned to Amazon—not without the usual flutter of misgivings. An attractive offer of a clean used copy said one dollar, plus six-dollars-and-something for postage, mailed from a supplier in Ontario, which looked in total about what one might happily pay in a thrift shop for such a book.

We tend to think and write about books we have read as disembodied “texts,” assemblages of words that resolve themselves on recollection into images and arguments, characters and events and scenes, the physical form of the book itself of little consideration. Yet books are also possessions, tangible things that lie about. Inviting or awkward, as the case may be.

My one-dollar book arrived as promised. It had in fact not been mailed from anywhere in Ontario, but from something called World of Books Ltd., Mulberry House, Goring by Sea, in the UK, by Royal Mail. The copy—a Collins-Harvill reprint from 1990—was definitely used, with that soft, rubbed feeling inside and out one associates with lending libraries.


Sure enough, inside the front cover I find pasted a book plate from Lanchester Library, Coventry Polytechnic—which has been Coventry University since 1992—and over that a slender sheet with rubber-stamped dates of past borrowings, each cancelled with another rubber stamp, six of these in all. The only other marks inside the cover are call numbers. Someone catalogued it as 824 YAS, and then changed the number to 894, then revised the whole thing to 353 KEM. One of those six readers perhaps alerting the library to the mistake about the author’s surname? A little history of use, a gentle decline to deaccession, to the dollar bin, and now to me.

Memed, My Hawk is a marvellous wedding of social realism and fairy-tale wonder that is perhaps only possible in a landscape and time like the one depicted. A traditional society on the cusp of modernity. Governments and armies, regional capitals and police forces, existing, but at a distance. In this vacuum, brutal landlords exploit peasants and villagers at will. Brigandage, outlawry, a rough code of comradeship, courage and daring represent a kind of justice, a balancing of the books. This is Turkey in the early days of the Republic, after World War I. But it might be the West, the Outback, the Caucasus, the Sertão, those places of the untamed margin, places that contain both a regression of civilisation and the founding myth of a new society.

Kemal’s book made me think of the great novel of João Guimarães Rosa, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands—similarly the narrative of a brigand, in a similar landscape, but in Brazil—which I read many years ago and wove into my lectures on American History as the counter-example of a frontier myth, a work whose linguistic and spiritual and emotional registers would be unthinkable in any imaginable Western. I want to read it again, but it is out of print and there are no one-dollar copies on Amazon, not even from World of Books in Goring by Sea.