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Poetic Justice

Nothing in late Ottoman culture would lead us to expect that Turkey’s greatest poet by far in the twentieth century would be a figure like Nazım Hikmet…

Nothing in late Ottoman culture would lead us to expect that Turkey’s greatest poet by far in the twentieth century would be a figure like Nazım Hikmet, who owed nothing to his country’s oriental past, who wrote a torrent of passionate free verse, and whose imagination was driven by the revolutionary fervour of international communism.

Yet Nazım, born in Thessalonica in 1902, came from a family background of fairly standard Ottoman upper officialdom, and at the beginning, at least, he shared its sentiments. The poems of his high school years are patriotic jingles which echo a thousand Victorian versifiers.

The change came when he was in his early twenties and decided to join the Russian revolution. When he and his friend Va-Nu arrived in the Soviet Union for the first time, at Batum in 1921, there were several minutes of unpleasantness with the border guards after Nazım disclosed that he came from a non-proletarian family of pashas, while Va-Nu gave his late father’s occupation as “governor of Beirut”.

This particular story, alas, does not make it into Saime Göksu’s and Edward Timms’ excellent biography. But there are virtually no omissions with which one can quarrel. Göksu and Timms have produced a book which is a model of what a critical life of a great poet should be.

A good book in English on Nazım Hikmet Ran (Ran is his little-used surname) is long overdue. He has been very well served in Turkish by the biographies and memoirs of friends and contemporaries. Va-Nu’s Bu Dünyadan Nazım Geçti, in particular, gives such a vivid picture of Nazım that it lingers forever in the mind, like memories of an old friend – one whose voice, of course, remains alive in his poems.

If you don’t know Turkish, it is perhaps hard to understand why Nazım Hikmet’s poetry is so powerfully exciting, or why attempts to describe it lure critics into merely offering us baffling oxymorons like “magic realism”. And of course there is his personal charisma, not to mention the pathos of a life lived with constantly proclaimed energy, hope and enthusiasm though largely passed in prison and exile. When I first picked up this book and looked through it, one sentence jumped out of the pages: “The years 1929–33 mark the longest period of freedom the poet ever experienced in Turkey.”

Göksu and Timms present the historical background in detail, but with great deftness and admirable balance. There is critical discussion of the texts. Shimmering translations of key poems are worked directly into the story. When the authors feel that their translation does not do justice to the original, because of differences between English and Turkish, they explain why. To crown it all, there are photographs, cartoons, and drawings. The publishers, Hurst, have been almost prodigal with the reader and it seems a little ungenerous to object that references are embedded in brackets in the text, rather than relegated to notes at the bottom of the page, and that occasionally the proofreading has faltered.

Nazım’s foibles and weaknesses are dispassionately signalled when necessary, an important requirement for a biography of a poet who was committed in everything he did to an unscrupulous political movement that routinely bent the truth to the needs of the moment.

The notorious fickleness of geniuses – Nazım’s tendency to love the woman in his life with passionate and haunting words, then to pass on after a time to someone else – is an obvious challenge for biographers: “…where Mayakovsky was driven to distraction by passionate love affairs, Nazım was sustained by relationships which enhanced his creativity,” they write. “Life is not worth living unless one is in love with one person and also with millions of people,” Nazım himself wrote.

“This was certainly a creative outlook for the poet, but for ordinary human beings it caused complications,” his biographers observe drily before going on to tell how, in 1948, Nazım dropped his beloved and long-suffering wife Piraye, to whom he had written wonderfully moving letters from prison, for a new lover who inspired him with the passion for new poems. With cool economy, Göksu and Timms expose the undertones of guilt and self-pity this produced in his work, suggesting that he temporarily lost control of his art as well as his emotions.

On January 17, 1938, Nazım was arrested for having seditious contacts with students in the Military Academy. He received a fifteen-year prison sentence, increased later to twenty-eight years. He was only released in July 1950, after an international campaign backed by, among others, Camus, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Picasso and Paul Robeson, and a hunger strike in Turkey in which three of the country’s most famous poets – Orhan Veli, Melih Cevdet Anday and Oktay Rifat – took part. The main body of his work was written during those prison years, along with translations for the minister of education, Hasan Ali Yücel, of the libretto of Tosca and the whole of War and Peace.

The epic qualities of Tolstoy’s novel spurred Nazım to attempt something similar himself. From 1941 onwards, he was at work in his cell on Human Landscapes of My Country, a vast narrative poem of 22,000 lines, distantly modelled on the medieval English poem Piers Ploughman. At this point Göksu and Timms break through the usual limitations of a biography and provide an excellent critical introduction to the poem.

Release from prison did not bring an end to Nazım’s problems. The friends’ house he stayed in was attacked. Though he was nearly fifty and had been a military cadet in his youth, there were moves to conscript him. In June 1951 he fled to Romania and lived out the remaining dozen years of his life stripped of his Turkish citizenship but as a Communist international literary grandee, lionised on public occasions but pining for everyone he had left behind.

Inside Turkey, he was banned, though his works circulated even among right-of-centre politicians in a kind of samizdat form. He died near Moscow in June 1963 and was buried next to Chekhov, Turgenev and Mayokovsky.

In this post-communist era, his reputation must inevitably undergo a delicate reassessment. Does his poetry still speak to us, or is it out of date, as with Mayakovsky, Nazım’s nearest Russian counterpart? “Nazım has ceased to be a cult figure of the communist world and become a poet of universal significance,” the authors say. This lucid, intelligent and formidably well-researched book is compelling evidence that this is indeed the case.

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