Today's Zaman - Marion James - 7 February 2010


ORHAN KEMAL. The Idle Years

‘In Jail with Nazým Hikmet’ by Orhan Kemal and Bengisu Rona

A photograph of Turkish  poet Nazým Hikmet,  taken by Lütfi Özkök  in 1959 in Stockholm.
A photograph of Turkish poet Nazým Hikmet, taken by Lütfi Özkök in 1959 in Stockholm.
Iron sharpens iron. When two of Turkey’s literary greats share a cell together in Bursa Prison, the result can only be an amazing combination of words that will shape the nation for a few generations.
Bengisu Rona, a Turkish professor, lectures in Turkish literature at the famous School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. She says one of the major themes of her course is “the way politics shaped the literary canon.” Of course, she goes on to observe that “nowhere is this more evident than in the writings of two people: Nazým Hikmet in poetry and Orhan Kemal in prose.”

In this recent volume, published in association with the Orhan Kemal Museum in Ýstanbul, Rona draws on a wealth of contemporary material. The first section contains the background to how two of the most prominent literary figures in Turkey ended up in jail. She then presents a lively translation of Kemal’s own memoirs concerning this time, “Three and a Half Years with Nazým Hikmet.” She rounds off her collection with selections from Kemal’s prison notes and then Hikmet’s letters from prison.

Young Kemal grew up in a family shaped by the political activities of his father. As a member of the Committee of Union and Progress, Kemal’s father served three months of a six-month sentence in 1912. It seemed this incarceration of Abdülkadir Kemali was to set the fate on his life and the life of his son for a few decades. As the pendulum swung in Turkish politics, by 1920 he was to find himself the chairman of the Independence Tribunal in Pozantý, near Adana, trying those accused of insurrection through involvement in the Koçgiri tribes’ uprising.

But again, in 1925 he was given a six-month sentence for publishing the draft manifesto of the General Defense Party in his newspaper. On Sept. 29, 1930 he founded the Popular Republican Party, but once again the political tide turned against him, and he fled to Syria. He stayed in exile until 1939, by which time his son, Orhan Kemal, was in jail!

Every Turkish young man has to do his national service. Young Kemal was posted to Niđde in 1937, where he was accused of inciting soldiers to mutiny through engaging in propaganda in support of foreign regimes. Like many young men of his time, he was fascinated by the writings of a young poet whose words had the power to move people. Amongst the scanty items of proof brought up at his trial was included a poem he had written dedicated to this hero, Hikmet. He also had a Maxim Gorky book in his possession, and some newspaper cuttings on Russian writers and Marxism. The final nail in his coffin was testimony by fellow conscripts that he admired Hikmet and had said publicly that he thought the poet’s works should be included in the military library.

It seems strange today that communism could be seen to be such a threat. But given the long history between Turkey and Russia and the rapidly changing power base in the region in the run-up to World War II, it becomes more understandable. Such political actions were to be repeated in the United States a couple of decades later with the McCarthy witch-hunts. In the US it was mainly Hollywood actors who were denounced as communists; during this period in Turkey’s history, it was the writers.

Kemal was to be imprisoned until Sept. 26, 1943.

How ironic, that the sentence he received for admiring Hikmet was to lead him directly to the man who was to become a lifelong friend and the shaper of his art. Kemal said of him: “Nazým Hikmet is my real teacher. He taught me how to look at the world and to see things within the framework of a certain method. People who live in our times, people who can see around them are inevitably affected by the world they live in. The crucial thing is to know how to look. Only if you know how to look can you see what you should see. It is this which Nazým taught me...”

Fate has such a sense of humor. Banished to prison for reading Hikmet’s poems, Kemal was to be given the opportunity to read his life. Kemal’s memoirs of his time in prison paint vividly for us the excitement of the day when a fellow prisoner who worked in the admissions and records office of Bursa Prison exclaimed to him,” You’re in luck -- your master’s coming!” That day, Kemal recalls, although the ground was covered with snow it was as though the sunshine burst through. “Even to meet him, even if we didn’t become friends -- at least I would see his face.”

But the two were destined for much more. Nazým’s first impression of Kemal was that “he is keen on poetry, and he is excitable.” Kemal says of Nazým, “His eyes were the smiling deepest blue.” The two literary geniuses were to share a cell together. At this news, Kemal explosively exclaims that “there was a hurricane of joy inside me.”

Nazým Hikmet’s letters to ex-cellmate Kemal Tahir in Çankýrý prison reveal the growing closeness between the men. Poetry was Kemal’s first love, and it took all of the persuasion of the master for him to forsake it. Nazým insisted that he should write prose, and he confided to Tahir on March 3, 1941, “If all is well, in a couple of years’ time a new story writer will be born into the world.”

Challenging and fascinating, the tender story of how the master poet and inspired novelist developed a deep friendship and encouraged and sustained each other through the tough times has the power to move even the hardest of hearts. Nazým wrote, “For a man in prison a good friend, a good comrade and excellent brother and a creative person is half of freedom.” The fact that this master-pupil friendship also resulted in some of the greatest Turkish literature of the 20th century -- Hikmet’s epic poem “Human Landscapes From My Country” and Kemal’s body of 28 novels and 18 short story collections -- makes it a magical time.

Nazým skillfully and insightfully analyzes his young friend and takes him under his wing. He teaches him French, listens to his poems, trains him to listen to words and choose their place in the sentence, and teaches him technique. Above all, he gives him a fire and a passion and teaches him to find his own “voice.”

As befits a great teacher, Hikmet is proud of his handiwork. When Kemal later was to achieve fame, his old guide and master was to write to him, “Your every success in the sphere of arts is to me like a triumph of my own.”

The most poignant sections of the book, though, deal with the period when Kemal is due to be released. Leaving behind Nazým in prison was to be one of the hardest things he was ever to do. “I left a chunk of my heart in jail and was taking home with me the friendship of those still in prison.” A poem he wrote as his farewell to his master, freshly translated by Bengisu Rona, expresses the longing in his heart for his friend.

“How can I forget you?

I can still hear on the concrete walkways

The clatter of your wooden clogs!

How can I ever forget you?

From you I learnt how to love the world and our people,

Writing poetry and short stories

And fighting like a man, all these I learnt from you!”


“In Jail with Nazým Hikmet,” by Orhan Kemal and Bengisu Rona, published by Anatolia Publishing, TL 15 in paperback, ISBN: 978-075927586-0


07 February 2010, Sunday