timeoutbeirut.com - Books - Mar 2010


In Jail with Nazým Hikmet

In Jail with Nazým Hikmet In Jail with Nazým Hikmet ****

Orhan Kemal, trans. Bengisu Rona $14 Saqi

Writers’ experiences of imprisonment have always been double-edged swords of misery and genius – ex-cons Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nelson Mandela and Malcom X, for example, in the act of putting their memories to paper, can honestly be said to have changed the world. ‘In Jail with Nazým Hikmet’ is a less dramatic undertaking, but nonetheless a revealing exploration of the changes wrought in a young writer behind bars.

In Bursa prison, Turkey in 1940, Orhan Kemal meets one of his idols, the famous poet Nazým Hikmet. Both are there on charges of inciting Communist mutiny in the Turkish army during a period of extreme pre-war sensitivity (helpfully explained by the translator’s excellent introduction). What follows is a beautiful evocation of a tender and inspiring friendship, as Hikmet guides the younger man during what turn out to be the formative years on his way to being one of Turkey’s most famous novelists.

This sensitive translation also includes what survives of Kemal’s diaries on Hikmet, and the pair’s correspondence after Kemal’s release. An unusual, inspiring delight.

Review by Ellen Hardy