World Literature Today/The University of Oklahoma - Maureen Freely - November/December 2009


The Prison Imaginary in Turkish Literature



From the earliest days of the Republic, literary writers who challenged Turkey’s official ideology could expect to spend time in prison. Despite the privations that they suffered behind bars, they were able to form societies of support that helped them grow as writers while also helping them to survive materially. Though today’s literary writers are unlikely to spend time behind bars, they do not always feel better off.

In 1938, while doing his military service, a young Turkish poet named Raţit was charged with inciting mutiny and spreading propaganda on behalf of a foreign state. The evidence against him was slim but, in a court that regarded Communism as the single most important threat to national security, not unusually so. Among his belongings, the authorities had discovered an assortment of newspaper cuttings about Marxism, a book by Maxim Gorky, and a handful of poems dedicated to Nâzým Hikmet, who was not just Turkey’s first and foremost modern poet but also its most famous Communist.



Raţit was dispatched to a prison in the city of Bursa to serve out a five-year sentence. The winter of 1939–40 found him assigned to the prison register office. One morning, the registrar walked in to say, “You’re in luck. Your master’s coming.” When Raţit protested, saying, “I don’t have a master, or anyone else who fits that description,” the registrar thrust a document into his hand: “Look at this, then. Nâzým Hikmet. Don’t you reckon he’s your master?” (Orhan Kemal in Jail with Nâzým Hikmet).

Though Bursa Prison was a broad church, mixing its political prisoners with thieves, drug dealers, murderers, and bandits, every inmate knew of the great Nâzým Hikmet. Those who had come to know him personally in other prisons painted a picture of a man so much larger than life that he could stun a crying baby to silence just by picking him up. So Raţit was not prepared for the bright-eyed, open-faced man who walked through the door, clicking his heels together like a soldier as he introduced himself. As he scanned the room, his face lit up at the sight of each familiar face. “And you’re here as well, Vasfý? What happened to your appeal? . . . Then what next, Remzi? So you got thirty years then? What on earth for?”

He was assigned to one of the isolation cells usually reserved for men caught gambling, thieving, or knifing a fellow inmate (though in this case it would have been an acknowledgment by the prison authorities that he was a distinguished man of letters who should not be obliged to live communally with common criminals). Raţit was on hand to help Nâzým settle into his new quarters. After Raţit had cooked them both a meal of eggs and Turkish sausage on his charcoal brazier—and refused to let his guest pay for his share—Nâzým asked if he would mind being his roommate. “I can’t stand being alone! You can’t even imagine. . . . I can’t write a single word. I just go mad.”

It wasn’t long before Nâzým, having already decided to tutor Raţit in French and current affairs, asked to hear a few of his poems. Raţit began with the one of which he was most proud. He had not reached the end of the first stanza when Nâzým said, “That’s enough, brother, that’s enough . . . let’s go on to another one, please” He did as he was told, but he had hardly begun the poem when Nâzým cried, “Awful!” Feeling very small, Raţit embarked on a third poem, only to be told, “Ghastly!”

“All right, brother,” Nâzým said then, “but why all this verbiage and—excuse the expression— mumbo jumbo? Why do you write things you don’t sincerely feel? Look, you’re a sensible person. Don’t you realize you’re maligning yourself when you write about what you feel in a way that you’d never feel, that you’re making a mockery of it like that?” Having launched into a long lecture about “active realism” that Raţit, in his humiliation, could barely understand, Nâzým again stunned his new friend, this time by asking if he would like to hear him read.

“I pulled myself together,” Raţit later recalled. “We were facing each other, eye to eye. He added: ‘But you’re not going to be just polite about them. You’ll also criticise me—mercilessly!’”

Thus began one of the most touching friendships in Turkish letters, which Raţit later recounted in a short memoir entitled Nâzým Hikmet’le üç buçuk’yil (Three and a half years in prison with Nâzým Hikmet). Though he wrote it in 1947, the book was not published until 1965. By then Raţit had become the famous (though forever struggling) novelist Orhan Kemal (the pen name by which he is known in Turkey), much loved for his stark tales about the poor and downtrodden. Nâzým Hikmet (1902–63) had been dead for two years, having spent more than thirteen years of his life in prison and his final twelve years in exile in the Soviet Union.

Though it would continue to be dangerous (and, at times, illegal) to own a volume of Nâzým Hikmet’s poetry, death would not silence him, and neither would it lessen the stature of Orhan Kemal (1914–70). To this day, they are loved even by those compatriots who do not share their politics— admired not just for their words, but for the sort of men they were, and for the code by which they lived. Nowhere is their generosity of spirit more beautifully described than in Orhan Kemal’s jewel of a memoir, now beautifully translated into English by Bengisu Rona.

The volume includes a long essay that sets the memoir in historical context, outlining the two writers’ careers and explaining (though never condoning) the mind-set that led to the persecution and prosecution of writers at odds with state ideology. During the early years of the Turkish Republic, as he struggled to pull together the shattered fragments of the Ottoman Empire to create a unified nation-state, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s success depended on his manufacturing (and, if necesssary, enforcing) consent among intellectuals, religious conservatives, and the diverse Muslim ethnic groups that now made up most of Anatolia. If ever he met with dissent that threatened to weaken the Republican project, he was quick not just to suppress it but to be seen as suppressing it decisively. Always suspicious of Turkey’s Communists, he was nevertheless willing to enter into alliances with the Soviet Union if he judged them advantageous, and when these alliances were in place, the curbs on left-wing expression would lessen. But by 1938 Atatürk was on his deathbed, and those who succeeded him were less flexible.

For most of the next half-century—until the emergence of the Kurdish separatist movement and the rise of political Islam in the 1980s—it was leftist intellectuals whom the Turkish state viewed as the most dangerous threat to national security, and it was prepared to use the harshest measures to stamp out any party or movement that might be taking its orders from Moscow. Turkey’s first penal code, taken from Mussolini’s Italy, contained several articles prohibiting organizations and propaganda seeking to destroy or weaken nationalist feeling. These were deployed aggressively against the left-wing intelligentsia in general and left-leaning literary writers in particular, though almost always it was literary writers’ political statements that led to their prosecution. Many thousands of leftists and alleged leftists were imprisoned in the aftermath of the 1971 coup; many more were imprisoned after the coup on September 12, 1980. There was even a time, following the 1980 coup, when the penalties for writing an essay urging the Turkish people to take up arms against the state were more severe than those applied to those who actually took up arms against the state. Leftleaning journalists would often find themselves prosecuted for a host of articles simultaneously; for these they were sometimes given consecutive sentences that, added together, would have taken several lifetimes to serve out.

Though there were periodic amnesties, leftist writers often found life outside prison more difficult than life inside. After their release, they were often sent into exile in remote parts of the country, particularly in the early years of the Republic, though the practice was still in place in the 1970s. When they were at last able to return home, many would find themselves barred from secure employment. Often the only recourse was to work as freelancers in publishing, but even if they were as famous and prolific as Orhan Kemal (who ended up publishing twenty-eight novels, eighteen short-story collections, two plays, and two memoirs, as well as writing many film scripts) they were unable to earn a living wage. As is so often the case in the face of sustained persecution and harrassment, Turkey’s left-wing writers survived by helping one another.

This may explain why—even today, when, strictly speaking, it is no longer accurate—the joke in Turkish literary circles is that you are not a “true” writer until you have spent some time in prison. What is at stake here is not an aesthetic but an ethos, and in Orhan Kemal’s portrayal of Nâzým Hikmet we see its roots. Though his own origins were rather grand, Hikmet saw himself as a people’s writer. Though politically an internationalist who believed in the struggle as defined by Marx, he was a fervent patriot and endlessly enthusiastic about the potential of “our people.” One of his most famous poems is a wish (still unfulfilled) that he be buried under a tree in Anatolia. In another much-loved poem, he offers a set of instructions to those who find themselves in prison:

There may not be happiness but it is your binding duty to resist the enemy, and live one extra day. Inside, one part of you may live completely alone like a stone at the bottom of a well. But the other part of you must so involve yourself in the whirl of the world, that inside you shudder when outside a leaf trembles on the ground forty days away. (Beyond the Walls)

It is the same struggle to sustain hope against the odds that we witness in Orhan Kemal’s memoir, and in the letters that Hikmet writes to him after his release (also translated by Rona and included in the volume). No matter how bad things are, Hikmet refuses to bow to his oppressors. He is the one who goes to the prison authorities to speak on behalf of prisoners too frightened or too shy to ask for dispensations. He tutors not just the poets in the prison but the would-be painters. Lacking the means to support his wife and child or to pay for his upkeep in prison, he sets up a weaving business. He is painstaking about paying all those involved in the business fairly, and in his letters to friends on the outside, he devotes much space to chiding and cajoling them into doing a better job of selling their wares. He is an ardent listener, passionately interested in the stories told to him by his fellow prisoners, many of whom will go on to be immortalized in his poems. But throughout all this, he retains the wayward exuberance of a child. When his wife comes to visit, he flaps his arms in excitement as he speaks, while she, the dignified and long-suffering wife of a great poet, sits silent and composed. When his mother comes to visit, she listens respectfully to his poems, but because she knows herself to be the better painter, she is scathing about his art, and he receives her criticism with a bowed head. When Raţit gives him a rabbit, he is so fiercely affectionate that the rabbit almost dies of fright. And when Raţit becomes Orhan Kemal and sends him his latest book, his mentor begins by offering yet another punctilious writing lesson, outlining the novel’s strengths, listing its shortcomings, and expressing horror at the dreadful photograph chosen to appear as the author’s picture in the book. There follows yet another lecture about the eroding effects of despair on literature: “Beware, my son, protect yourself from this, be even more bitter and sad, but let your joy and hope shine through. That’s it. I repeat once more, I congratulate you and Turkish literature. Young and old, I clutch you to my bosom.”

In this age of irony, it is hard to imagine a writer offering up such undoctored sentiments, even if that writer comes out of the literary tradition that Nâzým Hikmet and Orhan Kemal helped forge. The spirit of resistance remains strong among the many fine journalists whose principles oblige them to challenge state ideology. But among today’s literary writers, the center has not held. Most acknowledge their debt to the the great mid-century fiction writers of the leftist tradition— Sabahattin Ali, Aziz Nesin, Kemal Tahir, and Yaţar Kemal, to name just a few—and some (like Latife Tekin) are happy to see themselves as continuing that tradition. But today’s novelists are less likely to see themselves as writing for the people, let alone the struggle, and more likely to resist the idea that their work only has worth to the extent that it serves the national project (however they define it). They speak instead of the primacy of the imagination, the need for a distinct and authentic voice, and the importance of writing about the world as they themselves see it, unimpeded by ideology.

Sadly, there are many in the state apparatus who are as suspicious of today’s most successful literary novelists as their predecessors were of Nâzým Hikmet. They do not like writers breaking with the official ideology or airing their independent opinions abroad. In Turkey’s penal code of 2004, ostensibly brought into line with European social democratic norms, there are up to twenty articles that curb free speech, the most famous of which is Article 301, which made it a crime to insult “Turkishness,” along with the Turkish Republic, parliament, the government, and judicial organs—and the army and police for good measure. Since its introduction, only a few of the hundreds of prosecutions have led to prison sentences, and in no case has a well-known writer of fiction been jailed. However, the much-publicized prosecutions of Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak did succeed in giving prosecutors a platform on the evening news, while portraying the defendants as traitors. After persistent criticism of this clause, some minor amendments were introduced in 2008, replacing the word “Turkishness” by “the Turkish nation” and reducing the maximum penalty from three to two years’ imprisonment. None of the critics of Article 301 has been impressed by the changes.

Kemal Kerinçsiz, the ultranationalist lawyer who launched both the Pamuk and Shafak prosecutions, also launched several against the Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink; following a sustained hate campaign in the ultranationalist press, Dink was gunned down in front of his office in January 2007. His assassin is behind bars, though his fate is still unclear: his trial is expected to go on for years. Also behind bars is Kerinçsiz himself. In early 2008 he (along with many others) was charged with belonging to a state-sponsored ultranationalist terrorist organization charged with aiming to soften up the country for a coup. It is alleged that this organization had a hit list, and that Orhan Pamuk was to have to have been its next target. This trial, too, is expected to go on for a decade.

In the meantime, Pamuk lives under police protection when in Turkey. Though he can come and go as he likes, and though he is free to speak his mind, he is wise enough to exercise extreme caution, for he knows (as do all other leading writers who have been targeted by ultranationalists in recent years) that a single unconsidered sentence in an interview with a journalist anywhere in the world could lead to a renewed hate campaign.

For a political journalist or a human rights activist, such risks, however undeserved, might still be said to be “part of the job.” For literary writers wishing to free themselves of all political ideologies—nationalist and internationalist; left, right, and center—the question is more complex. Where to find the space to work, safe from the glare of publicity? How to explore ideas openly if one’s every word is subject to hostile scrutiny? How to reclaim the capricious sense of play without which the imagination cannot function? During the three-and-a-half years Nâzým Hikmet shared a cell with Orhan Kemal, the two men were able, despite the many hardships, to create a space, and a tradition, that allowed them to hold Turkish literature to their hearts. To read of their friendship now is to understand how much harder it is for Turkey’s literary writers, for all their fame and all their freedom, to find such spaces today.

University of Warwick