‘In Jail with Nazim Hikmet’ by Orhan Kemal
I visit Antalya's splendid, centrally located Karaalioğlu Park twice daily in the company of my sometimes (in the current summer heat) reluctant dog. Around a year ago I was surprised to see that the giant hand statue adorning the harbor-end of the cliff-top promenade -- formerly a popular spot for tourists to clamber inside and pose amusingly for a photo -- had disappeared.
In its place was a weird looking angular monument, consisting mostly of great slabs of stone covered in writing. On close inspection the words turned out to be extracts from the works of a man I later discovered was Turkey's most famous poet, Nazim Hikmet, a man who had spent most of his life either incarcerated in one of Turkey's jails or living in exile in Russia.
Understanding Turkey's culture is a complex business, but taking the time to sniff out Turkish literature that has been translated into English is well worth the effort. İstanbul obviously has a generous selection of bookshops well stocked with English versions of several Turkish authors. Antalya, where I live, has a rather more limited choice, but for a long time, inspired by my daily glimpses of these poems, I have been interested in finding out more about Nazim Hikmet.
So I was delighted to stumble on a book by another famous Turkish author, Orhan Kemal, in an Antalya shopping mall. In the slim volume Kemal details the time he spent in prison with fellow writer, Nazim Hikmet. “Brilliant,” I thought, “a fantastic introduction to two Turkish literary giants in one go.” Both men had been imprisoned for “inciting” revolutionary thoughts amongst their fellow soldiers while serving time in the army through their writing, teaching and meetings. Nazim had been sentenced to 28 years and Orhan to just five. Nazim was transferred to Bursa prison on health grounds, and the two men spent the next three-and-a-half years, sharing a cell, their food, their ideas and, of course, their writing.
Orhan Kemal was born in Ceyhan on the Çukurova plain near Adana in 1914. His mother, unusually for that time, was educated and had worked briefly as a teacher. His father became a writer and a lawyer but because of his largely left-wing, independent political leanings the family moved several times and eventually fled to Syria and Lebanon in 1935. Orhan's formal education suffered from this upheaval and in his formative years, he worked in İstanbul and Adana on a variety of jobs, providing him with a whole range of excellent material for his future novels.
Three-and-a-half years with Nazim Hikmet
Orhan was already a fan of Nazim's work and familiar with many of his poems -- “Orchestra,” “Mechanization” and “The Caspian Seas” to name but a few -- and he quotes from these liberally and excitedly on hearing the news of Nazim's imminent arrival in the otherwise stultifyingly boring atmosphere of the prison. We get a flavor of his style -- modern, colloquial and direct as in this snippet from “Mechanization”:
“I want to be mechanized!
It comes from my brain, my flesh, my bones!
I'm driven mad by the desire to take over every dynamo I can lay my hands on!”
Nazim's entrance into prison and introduction to fellow inmates gives us a clue to his magnetic personality. He greets former prison acquaintances from all walks of life with an abundance of kindness and interest, exuding an air of optimism in all directions. Within the first two hours of his arrival, Orhan had shared his meal with the great poet, and they mutually decided to share the room and the cost of their living expenses. Orhan, on request, attempts to read some of his own “scribblings” to which Nazim responds with “awful” and “ghastly,” but sees beyond these and offers to help Orhan with his education. The book proceeds to chart the intense relationship between the two men and the influences and experiences that helped shape the poems Nazim wrote during this period.
Although born in 1902 in Salonica, he was brought up largely in İstanbul. His father worked for the foreign office, his mother was an artist. He attended the naval school for several years but was discharged on health grounds. He became politically active through his writing and particularly interested in left wing/Marxist ideology. He first went to the Soviet Union in 1921 and in his absence was given his first prison sentence. He returned to the country illegally in 1924 and was immediately arrested. During his life he spent much time travelling, particularly in Russia and Poland, before dying in 1963 in Moscow. He began his writing during politically turbulent times --World War II, the struggles with Greece and the Turkish War of Independence and, later, the lead up to World War II. Throughout this latter period, Turkey had an uneasy and tenuous relationship with Russia, possibly explaining the severe 28-year sentence that he received for encouraging Marxist views in both the army and navy.
I was particularly interested to find out just why Nazim Hikmet was, and remains today, such a well-known figure, particularly as he was perceived as an enemy of the state for most of his life. But this book, with its beautiful translations of the poems written prior to his sojourn in Bursa prison and those during his time in Bursa, go a long way to explain his importance in Turkey's literary history. His writing follows on from the more formal traditions of the Ottoman style. He writes passionately about subjects close to his heart -- both on the large scale and on the personal level. Orhan Kemal's book not only brings to life Nazim Hikmet's character through his relationships with the other prisoners, the visits from his wife and his ongoing interest and concern with Orhan's family, but also puts into context some of the poet's great pieces of work.
His epic poem “Human Landscapes from my Country” was composed largely during his stay in Bursa prison. This includes sections on the War of Independence and Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union, and these are interspersed with vignettes of characters from amongst his fellow inmates. His opening lines describe Galip Usta:
“At Haydarapaşa Station
It's three in the afternoon
On the steps, sun, exhaustion, stress.
A man is standing on the steps thinking about various things.
He's thin, timid with a long pointed nose,
His cheeks covered with pock marks.
The man on the steps is Galip Usta,
who's famous for thinking strange thoughts.”
Orhan explains that for Nazim it was crucial to his work that people understood his poetry. He used the opportunity in prison to read aloud over and over again his work and to refine them accordingly in order to make them more accessible and for them to be understood and felt by everyone. The effect of his poems on his audience was always remarkable, with many being reduced to tears or encouraged to recall incidents from their past.
Understanding something of the background to this literary genius has helped me at least to recognize the importance of Nazim Hikmet and to begin to appreciate the beauty of his work. This book was so expertly crafted and such a pleasure to read that I am inspired now to search out some more works by both Nazim Hikmet and Orhan Kemal. This may necessitate yet another trip to my pet hate -- a shopping mall -- but it will be well worth the sacrifice.