May 27, 2013

Rescuing Nazim Hikmet From His Saviors

Nazim Hikmet: the life and times of Turkey's world poet
By Mutlu Konuk Blasing
Persea Books, 294 pp. $27.95

Nazim Hikmet (Salonika, 1902-Moscow, 1963) was one of the outstanding Communist poets of the twentieth century. He should be mentioned in the same breath as Neruda and Darwish. He changed both the form and content of Turkish poetry,  gave an international voice to the oppressed people of Turkey and wrote much about facing prison and death. Hikmet's poetry reached its highest and defining points when it took up the connections between the individual and the world, cause and effect, essence and appearance, possibility and reality and necessity and chance. He spent many hard years in Turkish prisons for his poetry and artistic work and for his involvement and leadership on the left. In 1951 he was forced into exile and spent the rest of his life in Romania, Poland and the USSR. As a leader of the World Peace Council he also travelled extensively and contributed to the international peace movement during his time in exile. Much of his work is still unavailable in Turkey due to censorship.

A cottage industry is popping up around the memory and work of Nazim Hikmet. There are festivals, books and academic papers analyzing his work and it seems that many people who knew him and were directly influenced by him have written memoirs in Turkish, Russian, French and English. We have at least three volumes of his work in English available--a fragment of what he wrote. Still, there is a troubling lack of engagement with Hikmet's ideas while his name and presence are being branded. Just as troubling is the matter of Hikmet's full body of work still not being available in Turkey fifty years after his death.

Mutlu Knonuk Blasing has written a just-published overview of Hikmet's life and work entitled Nazim Hikmet: the life and times of Turkey's world poet and she has translated into English, and will soon be publishing. Hikmet's final novel Life's Good, Brother. Many of the translations of Hikmet's work that we have in English come from Blasing and her husband.

In Nazim Hikmet we meet Hikmet as a quasi-Sufi, a quasi-nationalist and as a quasi-Trotskyite---none of which is accurate. We do not meet him as a serious Communist---which he was. Blasing comes close to saying that prison was good for Hikmet because it allowed him to meet and interact with Turks from various regions and social stations, but it was prison that destroyed his health and nearly caused him a mental breakdown.

Blasing seems to have no background on the left and so she makes a number of political errors. There is the constant and false counterposing of poetry to revolutionary politics and political struggle. There is the inability to imagine the USSR and the Warsaw Pact nations as democracies or to appreciate what criticism/self-criticism meant to artists in those countries during the Cold War. She did not make full use of the USSR's archives in writing the book. The Communist Party of Turkey (TKP) existed as an underground organization when she says that it did not. This is important for the book because so much of Hikmet's work, and so much of the persecution that he faced, had to do with his involvement and leadership in the TKP. She uses only a few direct sources for much of the book and none of them are Communists. So it is that we get a very one-sided view of Hikmet, his politics and his work.

Late in life Hikmet apparently departed from communist morality---yes, there is such a thing---but Blasing cannot see this for what it was. Even if she could not make this leap, she might have asked if Hikmet's lapses were due to disease or advanced age or were the lasting effects of what he experienced in Turkish prisons. Instead, she puts these unacceptable departures from ethical behavior solely on Hikmet without context and without apology. She throws in an odd tidbit about Stalin cancelling a meeting with Hikmet after Hikmet made critical remarks at a Writers' Union meeting, but she does not draw the necessary conclusions from this: Hikmet was still published in the USSR, he was still treated quite well there and whatever disagreements he may have had with Stalin were less important than his freedom to travel and work. Blasing spends quite a bit of space documenting that Hikmet's freedom was circumscribed in the USSR, but she does not take up the question of what freedom means in a socialist society and how this compared to "freedom" in the capitalist countries during the Cold War. Could Hikmet have escaped to the US in those years? What would have happened to him here?

Blasing quotes Hikmet as being critical of the USSR and Stalin on many occasions. It seems quite possible to me that some of his criticisms were accurate and deserved and it is to the credit of the USSR that these criticisms could be made. Other criticisms, however, are given by Blasing without context. Since the quotes are so short and the sources (like an older Yevtushenko) so dubious, we don't know what Hikmet actually said or was trying to say.

Blasing gives an interesting, if too brief, overview of Turkish society during Hikmet's life. She does not directly take on the important question of how secularism arose in Turkey and what it meant for the left and artists there. And also missing from this account is any mention of the Armenian Genocide, a determining event in modern Turkish history. We do not know how Hikmet responded to the Genocide, or if he responded at all.

The book makes much of Hikmet's social and class origins and seems to say that Hikmet could never overcome his upper-class origins and become a proletarian. Let's settle the question by making two important points. First, the proletariat is not a club one joins. Class is a process at least as much as it is a category. Second, Hikmet did indeed overcome his origins through great personal and political struggle.

Blasing admits to engaging in her own form of censorship when she says in a footnote

In choosing poems to translate into English, Randy Blasing and I avoided poems that overtly voice a Party line. Translatability into a different time and context, as well as a different language, itself constitutes a criterion of value for a literary work. Technically, of course, translation of of poetry is impossible, but the effect and import of a poem should be transposable to differrent social and political contexts. And, on the whole, most of Nazim's poems meet that standard.  

Blasing has set a political standard which determines which poems will and will not be translated by her and her husband.

Three concluding points:

*Blasing does not fully explore Hikmet's contact with Paul Robeson. This would have been an interesting path to follow.
*The passing comparison Blasing makes between Hikmet and the fascist Ezra Pound is wholly inappropriate.
*The book leaves us with an unanswered question: what influence does Hikmet's writing have in Turkey today?


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