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Book Review: “Nazim Hikmet: The Life and Times of Turkey’s World Poet”

By Zack Rogow

In the soon-to-be-published biography Nazim Hikmet: The Life and Times of Turkey’s World Poet, poet Mutlu Konuk Blasing shows a thorough knowledge of both the poet’s work and its cultural context. English readers have Konuk Blasing to thank for her collaborations that have made Hikmet’s work available in translation, such as Poems of Nazim Hikmet and Human Landscapes from My Country, both also from Persea.

This is the first biography of Hikmet to appear in English since Saime Göksu and Edward Timms’s Romantic Communist, The Life and Work of Nazim Hikmet, published in 1999. Göksu and Timms include more of the month-to-month narrative of Hikmet’s life; Konuk Blasing provides more analytical insights into the writings and his story.

Among those insights are some startling conjectures that Konuk Blasing makes about Hikmet’s life, but the biographer backs them up with careful documentation and an exhaustive knowledge of her subject. Hikmet served a thirteen-year jail term in Turkey, imprisoned primarily for speaking out as a communist against the aconomic status quo of capitalism. Hikmet’s unjust sentencing after a kangaroo court trial was a cause célèbre for many years. It took an international campaign by leading artists and and a hunger strike by Hikmet himself to obtain his release. Konuk Blasing makes the striking statement that Hikmet “chose prison instead” of going into exile or capitulating to a nationalism in Turkey that did not take into account the needs of the laboring majority. By this statement I don’t think Konuk Blasing is suggesting that Hikmet’s imprisonment was in any way justified. She is making the case that he continued to speak out against an increasingly militaristic government, knowing that his statements would put him on a collision course with the authorities.

Konuk Blasing also suggests that Hikmet’s defection to the Soviet Union after his release from prison might have provoked and engineered by the Turkish authorities, despite their professions of shock and outrage at his leaving the country. The government revoked Hikmet’s citizenship in response to his defection. Konuk Blasing shows how the government may have set up his defection by drafting Hikmet into the army at age fifty, notwithstanding the poet’s poor health, seriously damaged in prison. Not only may the authorities have provoked Hikmet’s departure by conscripting him, Konuk Blasing points out that they may have allowed him to flee from Turkey even though the poet was under 24/7 police observation. Based on statements by Hikmet’s lawyer, Konuk Blasing surmises that the government viewed pushing Hikmet out of the country as an alternative to letting him speak freely at home. Hikmet then became Stalin’s headache, and he went on to challenge the powers-that-be in the Soviet Union, narrowly escaping assassination in a fake accident that his chauffeur was supposed to have staged. Hikmet’s murder was pre-empted by Stalin’s death.

One great virtue of Konuk Blasing’s biography is that she places Hikmet’s work in the context of the language reform that took place in Turkey during his youth. Hikmet came of age during the period of Atatürk and the Young Turk movement, which modernized and reformed the Turkish language by changing the writing system from Arabic to Roman (which comes closer to representing the sounds in Turkish), and by substituting everyday Turkish expressions for onscure Persian and Arabic words that only scholars knew. The chapter where Konuk Blasing sketches this historical development and the key role that Hikmet’s writing plays in it is an exciting new addition to our understanding of the poet.

Konuk Blasing is also authoritative in her writing about how Hikmet brought Turkish poetry in the modern era, partly by harking back to the rhythms of Turkish folk poetry, and partly by adapting European modernist free verse in a Turkish context. Hikmet’s book-length poem, Human Landscapes from My Country, fuses both these influences. Konuk Blasing makes frequent and useful connections between Hikmet’s ideas and the writings of English-language modernists such as Eliot, Frost, Stevens, Pound, and O’Hara—comparisons that help readers to understand Hikmet’s writings in a more familiar context.

Another intriguing feature of this biography is Konuk Blasing’s conjecture that there are troves of Hikmet’s poetry and letters that have yet to surface. When Hikmet was in prison, his poems were smuggled out in sealed tins of olive oil or cheese. Some of these tins found their way to friends who saved the contents by burying them in backyards until they could be published. Other writings may not have reached safekeeping. The police in Turkey confiscated some of Hikmet’s manuscripts, and the Russian government has possession of others.

The subtitle of this book calls Hikmet “Turkey’s World Poet.” This is true. He was one of the greatest writers of the last century, but his work remains relatively unknown in the U.S., which he was never able to visit because of Cold War visa policies. It is time for the English-speaking world to discover this fantastic writer, and Konuk Blasing’s new biography is a major step in this direction.

Published Feb 12, 2013   Copyright 2013 Zack Rogow

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