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“Of Course You’re Human”:
Orhan Kemal on Nazim Hikmet in Prison


Orhan Kemal, In Jail With Nazim Hikmet (London, Saqi Books, 2010)

Reviewed by Jennifer Mackenzie

Jennifer Mackenzie is a poet, teacher and writer living in Damascus, Syria. She received her M.F.A. from the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Truman Capote Fellow. Her poems have appeared in a dozen American literary journals, including Fence, Verse, and Quarterly West. She has also published numerous articles in Forward Magazine, Baladna English, and What’s On, all based in Syria.

It is a rare work of non-fiction that makes the reader wish to spend time in a Turkish prison. Yet moments of Orhan Kemal’s memoir In Jail With Nazim Hikmet do just that.

Nazim Hikmet was and is considered to be the foremost Turkish modernist poet of the twentieth century. As he was also an unwaveringly vocal Communist, he was regarded as a dangerous threat to Turkey’s political establishment, and spent nearly 18 years in various Turkish prisons, where he seems to have survived through sheer generosity. For three and a half of those years, from 1939 to 1943, he was also the cellmate and tutelary spirit of Mehmet Rasit Kemali, 12 years his junior, who was likewise imprisoned for Marxist leanings. Indeed, it was in prison, in large part thanks to Hikmet’s attentions, that Kemali emerged as the novelist Orhan Kemal, as he chose to call himself. Under this penname, Kemal rose to fame as one of Turkey’s greatest novelists, in the course of his lifetime publishing 28 novels, 18 short story collections, and a number of film scripts.

Kemal’s memoir sketches his formation as a man and writer under Hikmet’s tutelage, as well as Hikmet’s own aesthetic and personal development throughout this period. In 1938, when he was sentenced to 28 years in prison, Hikmet had published nine books of poetry and was already considered to be the most important poet of his generation; just before he was pardoned in 1950, he won – along with Pablo Picasso and Pablo Neruda – the International Peace Prize. This longest of his stints in prison also proved formative for Hikmet’s writing, which evolved into the cinematic montage-style of his masterwork, Human Landscapes Of My Country, an epic based on the life experiences of many of Hikmet’s fellow prisoners and their contemporaries.

In fact, it is one of the more interesting paradoxes of this history – that is, the intersection of Turkish literature and politics – that the same prisons which were intended to suppress the production of unacceptable literatures ultimately served as unorthodox conservatories for the renovation of Turkish arts and letters. For besides setting Kemal on his way to becoming an accomplished novelist, Hikmet also mentored several other writers and artists, most notably novelist Kemal Tahir and painter Ibrahim Balaban. Perhaps not coincidentally, Hikmet’s own literary catalyst, Vladamir Mayakovsky, also emerged from a revolutionary background which shaped his emphasis on exuberant destruction of old aesthetic as well as political forms. Indeed, it is possible to credit the advent of Turkish modernism to Hikmet’s exile in Moscow in the 1920s. As Kemal records, Hikmet noticed one of Mayakovsky’s poems, with its “smashed-up lines”, in a Moscow newspaper, was captivated by the new style, and imported it to Turkey.


In her lengthy introduction, Bengisu Rona, a professor of Turkish literature at SOAS, University of London, is particularly eager to articulate this history – in her words, “the way politics shaped the literary canon and the extent to which the literary works reflect political developments in Turkey.” She carefully enumerates the regional geopolitics of the first half of the twentieth century, and the vicissitudes communism underwent in Turkey during this time. From 1920, when Ataturk telegrammed Moscow requesting armaments and pledging cooperation in light of the two countries’ efforts, “to save the oppressed from imperialist governments,” to 1952, when Turkey joined NATO, the Turkish government’s policy towards communism alternated between wary, pragmatic tolerance and strict suppression. And as official policy swung back and forth between these two poles, Kemal and Hikmet, among others, lived out the consequences.

Understandably, therefore, Kemal is equally keen to avoid articulating this angle of political history in his memoir, being acutely aware of the risks this would pose to his freedom. As a child, he spent years in exile in Syria and Lebanon after his father misread the political climate and founded first one and then another opposition party. Later on, Kemal’s association with Nazim Hikmet bracketed his own experiences of prison. To begin with, though he had never met Hikmet personally, one of the charges on which Kemal was convicted in 1938 was a statement by a library clerk in the town where Kemal was stationed that Kemal, “said he admired Nazim Hikmet and that his works were valuable and should be stored in the library.” Nearly 30 years after his release, and three years after Hikmet’s death (in exile in Moscow), Kemal was again arrested for allegedly, “believing in revolutionary socialism, that is communism”, and forming an illegal cell, “to engage in communist propaganda.”1

One major piece of evidence that was held against him was the publication of Three and a Half Years With Nazim Hikmet, as his memoir was titled in Turkish. This time, Kemal successfully defended himself in court, saying the book was a personal story, not “a eulogy for communism,” and he was released a month after his arrest.


Kemal’s text focuses on his personal and artistic connection with the older poet: his apprenticeship to his “master”, as he called him. Throughout his early twenties, Kemal wrote poetry prolifically in a derivative style imitating Hikmet, whose popularity had led to his being charged with inciting mutiny in the army and the navy on the grounds that conscripts were reading his poetry. Kemal was also charged with inciting mutiny, in the sense that he was completing his obligatory military service when he was reported to be an admirer of Hikmet’s work.

However, as he himself describes, when he meets Hikmet in person during his second year in Bursa Prison, he is shocked to find that his idol is not a statuesque, Parnassian personage, but an ordinary man with bright blue eyes and a smile like a child’s. Hikmet immediately takes the bookish Kemal under his wing, and works methodically to shatter his reliance on clichés. “All right, brother,” he tells Kemal when he finally shares one of his own early poems. “But why all this verbiage and – excuse the expression – mumbo jumbo? Why do you write things you don’t really, sincerely feel?”

While Kemal’s first reaction is to feel “shattered” by the criticism, he ultimately owes Hikmet a huge debt for teaching him his craft. Besides insisting that Kemal learn French, Hikmet strongly encourages him to abandon poetry for prose, precisely because, having fewer preconceptions about how it should sound, he has a much better chance of doing something original in it. Most fundamentally, Kemal credits Hikmet with teaching him how to see poetically. And in order to train this capacity in himself, Kemal makes Hikmet his primary subject of observation – Hikmet’s occasional objections notwithstanding. At one point, the poet chastises Kemal, while, “forcing himself not to laugh: ‘Look, at least you could do it without telling me, so that I can behave normally. Otherwise I shan’t even be able to move.’”

But Hikmet also employs, with far greater fluency and reach during this period, the same method of sustained observation and transcription of others’ stories to redefine his own process of poetic composition. Besides tutoring any prisoner who showed artistic aptitude, he invites many of his fellow inmates to sit for lengthy portrait-painting sessions. As he paints – whistling through his teeth, as Kemal recalls – he also collects their life histories, which he then uses to compose his masterpiece, Human Landscapes of My Country. In aesthetic terms, the “psychological effect” he is seeking to capture in his amateur portraits leads him to seek a new formal imperative – a kind of documentary montage – in his poetry.

This innovation seems so radical to Hikmet that he eventually declares that he has, “stopped being a poet” and become “something else”. From his early twenties, in good Marxist form, he is in love with all facets of industrialisation, from trains to cinematography, as the material means of delivering production to the people. Once in prison for the long term, Hikmet, then in his late thirties, is exposed to a motley cross-section of Turkish society. There he realises that, as editor Rona puts it, “[their] life stories were a critical element in the emergence of modern Turkey from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire,”2 – in other words, prime material for the kind of history he wants to produce. And because he believes that the writer is “accountable to the working masses”, he also read the drafts of his poems to the other prisoners, altering any parts they found false or confusing. Once, after Hikmet shares one section of poem with its subject, the man replies, “Master, what you’ve written is far closer to the truth than what I told you.”

In the process of incorporating and elaborating these perspectives in his poems, he invents a new form of semi-collective epic. Whereas in European literatures, “the lives of ordinary people … had been relegated to prose,” they were, says poet Edward Hirsch, “essentially unclaimed in Turkish literature at Hikmet’s time.” Thus, Hirsh argues in his introduction to Human Landscapes, “[Hikmet’s] use of such material places Landscapes at the source of modern Turkish fiction as well.”3 Nor do the boundaries of Hikmet’s imagination stop at the borders of Turkey; Kemal describes how, before and during the Second World War, the prisoners in Bursa huddle around a single radio, taking in the news. Hikmet, besides battling with the pro-German camp, lives this history vicariously, and incorporates the imagined thoughts of German, English and Russian soldiers and civilians into his epic.


For all the retrospective grandeur heaped on the power of the imagination by editors and anthologies, both Kemal and Hikmet remain clear-eyed about the losses their sentences entail. Their discussions of Balzac, Freud, Stendal and Zola take place in an atmosphere of steady brutality and petty cruelty. Drug-dealing, murder, and other crimes make up a regular part of the degradation of the prisoners’ environment. Hikmet’s equanimity with regard to this is, as usual, remarkable from his first appearance. Kemal describes how, in his first encounter with Hikmet, the newly arrived prisoner is greeting old friends in the prison when he is approached by one “Mad Remzi”. This prisoner, “a 24-year-old man standing with large bare feet on the freezing cold concrete floor,” has been relegated to the most destitute ward, where all the woodwork has been burned for heating, and where he has gone mad. Hikmet greets him warmly and listens to his mumblings, commiserating with him over his new sentence of 30 more years for killing a fellow prisoner over seven lira. “Of course you’re human. Why do you curse yourself?” Hikmet exclaims.

As Kemal observes later on, Hikmet, “had an unbounded affection for the human race. So much so that he made it into a ‘religion.’” At least once, this unflappable empathy saves his life. When a gypsy who has been hired to kill him is impressed with his kindness, he decides to forego the killing and – addressing him warmly as “my older brother” – to let him in on the plot instead. In another near-miss, it is Kemal who discovers that three murderers are planning to kill Hikmet simply so they will be remembered for something after their own deaths. “Look at us, what do we do? We go and take out some schmuck and then get thrown in jail forever,” Kemal overhears them saying. “But if you murder this guy, then all the newspapers in the world will write about you. Then your name will go down in history.”4

Tellingly, when Kemal informs Hikmet, the latter simply laughs; and, later, when the murderers are themselves killed, “it was Nazim who was the most sorry for them.” In his writing during and after his prison term, Hikmet keeps level sight of the humanity deformed inside an inhuman social architecture. In one poem, written after his release, he says of his deepest, personal, “impotent grief” that it is, “as if … [I] were back in prison/and they were making the peasant guards/beat the peasants again.”5

In the context of this monotony, steady daily work and study form a provisional bulwark against despair. Both writers work diligently, a practice that stays with them after their respective releases from prison. While in Bursa, Hikmet translates Tolstoy’s War and Peace for the Turkish Ministry of Education. He even buys a typewriter – “a 1913 vintage typewriter weighing half a ton”, as he describes it in a letter, in order to be able to work faster. The machine is, he adds, “the only production tool I can forgive myself possessing on this earth.” His immersion in Tolstoy also feeds into his poetry, which sometimes reads like a Russian novel broken up into lines. And when his wife writes to complain that she might not be able to afford wood to heat her house during the approaching winter, Hikmet desperately organises a weaving cooperative to produce cloth and market it as far as Istanbul. In this, too, his generosity is evident: he sets aside a share of the profits for Kemal, and another for his former cellmate and novelist Kemal Tahir. Six years after Kemal’s release, Hikmet is still sending him dividends, along with cloth samples to peddle, and arranging for the purchase and delivery of a rubber sheet following the birth of Kemal’s second child.

Most luminously, Kemal’s memoir is a tribute to the ways in which his friendship with Hikmet forms a lifeline for both writers during and after their prison terms. As Hikmet writes to Kemal in 1946, “For a man in prison a good friend, a good comrade, an excellent brother and a creative person is half of freedom.” Three years earlier, on the eve of his release, Kemal also struggles to articulate his ambivalence at leaving Hikmet behind. Just before leaving the prison, he writes several poems for his teacher. In one, anticipating the moment of his arrival home in two days time, he writes, “At that moment … kissing my beloved on her cheeks/you’ll look at me with your joyful eyes/from within me.”


Kemal’s memoir, published three years after Hikmet’s death in Moscow, also bears witness to the exigencies of his life during and after prison. While in Bursa Prison, Kemal takes copious notes, hoping to write an extensive memoir. But most of these are lost; the pages that are preserved are appended to the main body of the memoir, along with two very short stories that Kemal titled separately. The tone of these notes is sometimes more emotionally vivid and specific than the memoir itself, which often descends into slightly vaguer or generalising language in recounting memories.

Besides the pressures to elide politics from his text, Kemal was also under constant pressure to support his family. Once he moved to Istanbul in 1951, he became one of the few Turkish writers of his generation to make a living solely from his literary output. His memoir, therefore, bears traces of somewhat hurried composition. He often forgets the names of people he mentions, leaving it to the editor to supply a footnote. And while each chapter is organised around a particular idea or relationship, there is also a fair amount of jumpy or meandering recollection.

Structurally, the book is really a pastiche of various materials in which the memoir itself makes up only half the content, and is sandwiched between editor Rona’s historical overview, the remains of Kemal’s notes and Hikmet’s letters to Kemal. Towards the end of his memoir, Kemal regrets his lapses of memory after nearly a quarter of a century, adding, “I am very well aware that I have not been able to write about Nazim Hikmet as he deserves.” Still, collectively these materials offer a lively set of glimpses into the lives of two major writers and a brief but winning introduction to Hikmet’s lessons on, “how to look at the world”. In retrospect, it was this gift that Kemal valued most highly, because, as he wrote in a letter, “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 Nazim has taught me.”6

In trying to represent the worldview – or really, views – contained in Bursa Prison in the forties, both writers learned new strategies of composition, even as they struggled to survive day-to-day. The unflinching realism of Kemal’s subsequent novels, with their focus on the challenges faced by the urban poor, are a testament to this education. Likewise, in its candid portrayal of both writers’ efforts to remain human and committed to humanity, Kemal’s memoir succeeds admirably. As Hikmet wrote to his protégé in 1949, “whether an individual is in the grip of hope or hopelessness is a matter which concerns only that individual. But … a writer who offers no hope has no right to be a writer.” By reflecting something of Hikmet’s quest for a mode of seeing that incorporates individual perspectives into collective progress, Kemal’s memoir justifies his mentor’s belief that reality is, as Hikmet insists, “sad, anguished, bitter, twilit, abhorrent, abominable, contemptible, vile … but not without hope.”

1. Orhan Kemal, In Jail With Nazim Hikmet (London, Saqi Books, 2010), p. 53.

2. Ibid, p. 12.

3. Nazim Hikmet, Human Landscapes From My Country (New York, Persea Books, 2002), p. xii.

4. Orhan Kemal, “In Jail With Nazim Hikmet” (London, Saqi Books, 2010) p. 111.

5. Nazim Hikmet, Poems (New York, Persea Books, 2009), p. 123.

6. Kemal, In Jail With Nazim Hikmet (London, Saqi Books, 2010), p. 38.

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