The Majalla - Book Reviews - 12 August 2010


My Master, My Friend

Turkish writer Orhan Kemal recounts three years in prison with acclaimed poet, Nazim Hikmet

Published: Thursday 12 August 2010 Updated: Thursday 12 August 2010

In a dank bug-infested prison some 50 miles from Istanbul, aspiring writer Orhan Kemal meets one of Turkey’s most famous poets, Nazim Hikmet. For Orhan, this is the meeting of his lifetime. For Nazim, this is an opportunity to shape who was to become one of Turkey’s most “foremost writers.” Orhan Kemal’s memoir, "In Jail with Nazim Hikmet," gives us insight into the lives of ordinary Turkish people during the long and painful period of nation building aggressively imposed by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, leader of the new Turkish republic. At the same time, we are drawn into prison life and the close friendships that make it bearable.

In Jail with Nazim Hikmet

Orhan Kemal

Saqi Books 2010


“Your master’s coming.”

“No,” Orhan said, “I don’t have a master—or anyone of the kind.”

“Look at this, then. Nazim Hikmet. Isn’t he your master?”

Indeed, Nazim Hikmet, counted among the most acclaimed Turkish poets of his day, would soon become Orhan’s master and his friend, so much so that Nazim wrote in a letter addressed to Orhan dated 1947, “Sometimes I feel the sadness of separation from you very acutely; sometimes I feel the joy of thinking of you all being very happy. Your pictures and your photographs are all there at my bedside.”

Orhan looked at the name printed on the register, confirming the arrival of Nazim to Bursa prison some weeks later. Bursting with the joy of a child, Orhan couldn’t help but spread the word of Nazim’s arrival to his fellow inmates. Everyone, it seemed, had a story to tell; he was the kind of man whose presence inspired action.

For most of us, the idea that we would have the chance to meet our most revered and respected role model is impossible to imagine. Immediately humbled in the presence of such a person, one would feel it difficult to know just what to do. Orhan was no different. When pressed by a friend about his work on the first day of their meeting, the young writer told Nazim that he had penned nothing more than “scribbles” of poetry, when in fact he had written prolifically (but not necessarily competently) prior to his conviction, and also during his sentence, the first two years of which he had already served.

It was not long before Nazim took it upon himself to instruct Orhan with the goal of enhancing his education and improving his writing, eventually convincing Orhan to give up poetry in favor of prose. With one of the most prominent poets in the country as his mentor, Orhan progressed quickly, becoming, as Nazim had predicted, “… one of the foremost writers of my country.” By the year of his death in 1970, he had published 28 novels, 18 short story collections, two plays and two volumes of memoirs, as well as a book of essays on the technique of writing film scripts.

Orhan Kemal’s prison memoir, In Jail with Nazim Hikmet, provides us with a valuable insight into the development of Orhan as a writer, as well as the political and social context in which the two men lived. Translated and introduced by Bengisu Rona, Reader in Turkish at the School of Oriental and African Studies, this book is a quick and rewarding read. One need not be familiar with Turkish literature to appreciate Orhan’s story. In addition to the text itself—written chronologically—Rona provides us with a lengthy introduction to the lives and works of Orhan Kemal and Nazim Hikmet, who met as political prisoners of the increasingly harsh Atatürkian state. At the end of the book we have Orhan’s “Prison Notes,” from which Orhan constructs his memoir, and “Letters from Nazim Hikmet to Orhan Kemal,” through which we can witness further the deep bond between the two men.

It is through this close and inspiring friendship, which develops during their three years together in Bursa prison, that we are introduced to the lives and characters that, in a very real yet gradual way, played a role in the building of Atatürk’s modern Turkish republic. At the time of their meeting, Nazim, a well-known communist, was serving a 27-year sentence for allegedly instigating mutiny in the navy. It was in prison that he gathered much of his material from which to write his poetry. Like Nazim, Orhan was also convicted of inciting mutiny, in addition to allegedly producing propaganda on behalf of a foreign state (Russia), for which he served five years.

The severity of their sentences and others like them can be attributed to the state's fear of a communist threat coming from Russia, which had begun to develop during the inter- and post-war periods. Lacking in political and military support after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the nationalist leadership in Ankara looked to Russia, allying itself with the Bolsheviks. However, as is characteristic of expedient relationships, when Soviet assistance became less dire, the voices supporting a communist takeover within the country became more problematic. Political assassinations, and massacres in some cases, became the norm, and it was this policy that saw the imprisonment of Nazim Hikmet and Orhan Kemal.

Among the many accomplishments of this book is its ability to sell itself: Read it and you will want to read more. Nazim and Orhan were not just outstanding writers, they were outstanding people, who played an important part in the birthing of their nation. The insight into the lives of these two writers through Orhan’s own words is priceless. Full of love and friendship, courage and perseverance, the principles by which these men lived are noteworthy in both a personal and historical context.

As the first writer to introduce the emergence of industrialization into Turkish literature, Orhan’s characters endured starvation, death and misery, however he always remained loyal to Nazim’s assertion that “… a writer who offers no hope has no right to be a writer.” And for that, Orhan always offers us hope.