The lack of quality biographies and shallow reviews are always the main complaints in literature. Nâzım Hikmet is an exception to this situation. Dozens of memoirs, the pioneer biography Romantic Communist (the qualification belongs to Stalin’s daughter) written by Edward Timms and Saime Göksü, and other biographies, as well as the academic studies create quite a quite collection of books. Partly because of this reason, it was widely expected that some new work on Hikmet would be published around the 55th anniversary of his death, but unfortunately this did not happen.
One of the remarkable recent studies of the poet was the biography called Nâzım Hikmet – The Life and Times of Turkey’s World Poet, which was written by Mutlu Konuk Blasing.
Although Blasing’s work has the qualities of a novel thanks to its fluency and readability, it differs from the classical biographies. It follows a chronological order, but the foundation of the book is based on Hikmet’s works, thus Blasing managed to create a “literary biography” by correlating milestones in the poet’s life with his works.
LIFE ASSIGNS THE POET
W. B. Yeats said that the poet always writes about his/her personal life. But Blasing claims it is the opposite with Hikmet, because he says his life determines his work. Blasing had stated, however, that it is impossible to write a biography about a poet, especially for individuals like Hikmet, as it is extremely difficult to distinguish between reality and fiction in the poet’s life.
Although Blasing does not emphasize anything new about Hikmet’s life story, his book is a subtle, chronologically-ordered compilation of the key points of that life. He made particular use of the memoirs of Sertels and Vâ-Nû, as well as the biography by Trimm and Göksü.
The first thing Hikmet, who was born in Thessaloniki in 1902, remembers about poetry is the odes and encomium read out by his grandfather. In the book which we can call an autobiography, Yaşamak Güzel Şey Be Kardeşim (It’s Great to be Alive, Brother), Hikmet wrote about reading out verses from these odes in Moscow years later. After leaving the military school for health reasons, he returned to Anatolia to take part in the war of independence in 1920. He was devastated by the poverty and deprivation he witnessed while traveling from Bolu to Ankara on foot. This first meeting with Anatolia would greatly impact his poetry throughout the following years. The things he witnessed in Ankara were another disappointment for him. The elites of Ankara who lived lives of debauchery considered themselves to be above the law and ignored the differences between the rich and the poor. The poet never got along with the Kemalists, although strangely enough today the nationalists and Kemalists idolize Hikmet. Following his time in Ankara, he moved to Moscow and attended university there. Another Moscow journey starts when he was around 20, but this time it was an escape. Although Hikmet believed in communism in these early years, Şevket Süreyya Aydemir states he was never even close to being a communist. Neither the class struggle nor the political theories brought him where he wanted to be. According to Hikmet Kıvılcımlı’s observations, Hikmet saw politics as a “game,” and he thought that it is chasing excitement like a “hero in a crime novel.” By the time he returned to his homeland, he was already ablaze as a poet. The 1930s passed, full of political and literary struggles, until 1938, when everything changed with his unjust imprisonment. Blasing states that Hikmet actually became the poet that everybody knew during these 13 years in prison, and he is not exactly wrong. In this period, the poet changed his style to lyricism. Hikmet described the suffering of people, disappointments, and the mind that refused to write about hope as “the sickness of the left-winger childhood.” He wrote unforgettable poems in Bursa Prison. Another interesting discovery by Blasing is about the letters Hikmet sent to Piraye. Blasing states that these letters simplified Hikmet’s language. After he was released from prison in 1951, the following years were marked by his exile, his huge disappointment after witnessing the communist regime in Moscow, and his world tour as a peace envoy until his death.
The life and poetry of Nâzım Hikmet are extraordinary examples of a modernist poet who succeeded in influencing many people. As Blasing points out, it could only happen at a time when modernity intersected with modernism, and it happened exactly on time. His biography explains why Hikmet was a modernist in a way. The most precious part of the book is the analysis of Hikmet’s poetry. Blasing reads the poet’s “19 Yaşım” (My 19th Age) as a matrix and relates the three squares in the poem (Beyazıt Square, Red Square, and Pushkin Square) to Hikmet’s three personalities (nationalist, political, poetic). Blasing also analyzes “Ferhad and Şirin,” which he believes plays a key role in understanding Hikmet. The dualities he identified in this theater play really summarize Hikmet’s world: two cities (İstanbul and Moscow), two countries (Turkey and the Soviet Union), two responsibilities (poetry and politics), two women (Piraye and Münevver, or Münevver and Vera), two perceptions (nationalism and internationalism). In fact, these dualities made Hikmet complete.
IF IMPOSSIBILITY EXISTS, SO DOES LOVE
Sadness permeates the pages of the book where the poet’s loves are mentioned. It is possible to summarize them in one sentence: “If impossibility exists, so does love.” The feeling of love for Hikmet was always fed with impossibilities: prison (Piraye), exile (Münevver), illness and being close to death (Vera). Blasing attributes the fact that Hikmet never wrote a single line of poetry for Galina Kolesnikova, with whom he spent seven years (the longest with a woman), to the absence of impossibility. His explanation of the symbolism of colors, with examples from the poems is very interesting. Piraye is “red,” Münevver is “green,” and Vera is “sandy.”
There are of course deficiencies in the book. It is argumentative where Hikmet was mentioned as the sole founder of the Turkish poetic language. Wasn’t Yahya Kemal, who was not mentioned in the book within the context of poetry, Hikmet’s guiding light? It is obvious that Blasing could not leave the official history discourse when he presented the history of the Ottoman Empire solely as the history of warfare, describing the last sultan as an “English puppet.” It is also historically incorrect to say that the alphabet reform was not “imposed” on the people, but was embraced by them.
The life of Nâzım Hikmet was not only the story of a poet, but also the story of a different Turkey, a different Russia. It was the story of the 20th century as well.
This article first appeared on Kronoshaber and was translated from Turkish by Politurco.