Today's Zaman - Andrew Finkel - 31 Mayıs 2009


‘In jail with Nazım Hikmet’



The first contacts are almost always the most important, and when I first set out to unravel the complexities of Turkey, I was looking to be looked after by an older journalist who was as generous as he was well connected. No matter how abstruse the subject I was trying to investigate, he had a telephone number for the occasion.

After a while, I began to deduce that his address book was fed by three main tributaries: the people he had been to school with (and he'd been to all the best); the people he did his military service with (somehow, his unit was a who's who of the Turkish press); but the richest vein of all were his fellow inmates from his time as a prisoner of conscience.
Incarceration, the sense of being removed from everyday life because you think dangerous thoughts, is a surprisingly powerful bond in Turkish public life, a sort of Masonic league that unites the politician with the school-yard radical, the poet with the menial hack. I remember the sneers that World Bank economist-turned-politician Kemal Derviş evoked among his fellow parliamentarians. He was too soigné, too sure of himself and, most contemptible of all, he had never been locked up. Doing your time in jail is proof of your sincerity and not the barrier to public acceptance it might be elsewhere. So when it was my turn, much later, to stand before a judge on a charge for a column I wrote in a Turkish newspaper that carried a maximum of six years, I felt I was undergoing a ritual of acceptance, almost like getting an honorary degree. The case was dropped after the second hearing, but I appreciated the gesture.

Even without this background, I would have found the recent English translation of Orhan Kemal's prison memoirs a moving and remarkable volume. Kemal was to become one of Turkey's most popular novelists, justly celebrated for his ability to get under the skin of ordinary life. In this early book, he describes how he learned his trade, or at least acquired the confidence to create. It is a debt of gratitude to his cellmate in a Bursa prison, the great man of Turkish letters, the poet Nazım Hikmet. The book, translated and annotated by Bengisu Rona, is a slimmed down version of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's “The First Circle” -- an account of a privileged corner of hell.

Hikmet spent even more years on the trumped-up charge of inciting mutiny, and he moved through prison like a respected elder statesman. He busied himself with tasks, building wooden boxes or weaving cloth to support his family on the outside, but he also undertook the job of educating Kemal. He stood over the young man as he learned his French verbs and gently steered him away from writing indifferent poetry into writing great. That Kemal worships the great poet is all too clear from those moments -- not when he puts his demigod on a pedestal or discusses his views on art -- when he recounts his foibles. There is a brief but extraordinarily moving passage when Hikmet, for reasons that are both petty and sad, refuses to see his wife, who has come to visit, and has to be coaxed by the entire jail into abandoning his petulance.

It is impossible to think of Hikmet as having a wasted life, yet for long years he was deprived the simple things freedom brings. Many of the characters whom he sketched with charcoal and oils in jail he portrayed in his poetry. Just as the inmates fed themselves from the scraps they could afford, the poet managed to conjure up a life worth living from within prison walls. “How strange it is, there are many people I love whose faces I have not seen, whose voices I have not yet heard,” he writes to his prodigy after Kemal was released. In that same correspondence, he chides Kemal for giving in to despair. Great artists write about hopelessness without succumbing to it. “A doctor who believes a man's fight against disease is in vain has no right to practice as a doctor,” he says.

Kemal's prose is sparse. Rona's translation is crisp. This is a book at the heart of the modern Turkish intellect.

“In Jail with Nazım Hikmet,” by Orhan Kemal, translated by Bengisu Rona (Anatolia Publishing House)

31 May 2009, Sunday