While the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk was preparing to go on trial last year, charged with “publicly denigrating Turkish identity” by mentioning the Armenian massacre in a Swiss newspaper, he wrote: “Living as I do in a country that honours its pashas, saints and policemen at every opportunity, but refuses to honour its writers until they have spent years in courts and in prisons, I cannot say I was surprised to be put on trial. I understand why friends smile and say that I am at last ‘a real Turkish writer.’”
Nazim Hikmet could have commiserated. An idealistic, humanitarian, Communist poet, he spent years in jail after the authorities decided that he was spreading seditious ideas with his poetry. Once free, he survived two assassination attempts in which mysterious strangers drove down narrow streets in large cars and tried to run him over. When he was forced into the military (a sneaky death sentence: he was fifty, and unwell), he fled abroad, living the rest of his life in exile before dying in 1963.
Turkey still treats him ambivalently, yet they’re willing to acknowledge that he is, as every publication about him is bound to point out, Turkey’s greatest 20th century poet. In 2002, the Turkish Minister for Culture opened a series of activities to mark the centennial of his birth, but as far as I can discover, they have yet to reinstate his citizenship after revoking it in 1951. So the real-est of Pamuk’s ‘real Turkish writers’ is not, technically speaking, currently Turkish. If you go by nationality, then he is Poland’s greatest 20th century poet, since he decided to take up Polish citizenship after being de-Turked. The Poles, however, have Bruno Schulz, and after that they need be covetous of no one else’s writers. Although the village where Schulz lived is now part of Ukraine.
One wishes that people would pick a country and stick with it.
Hikmet’s language is Turkish to the core, though, and, with two exceptions, this is how Victoria Serruya sings him. She has a wonderfully clear singing-speaking voice. It reaches low notes and thrums there. Her enunciation is so rounded that it never lets you forget you’re listening to An Important Poem, as opposed to, say, some lyrics she thought of herself last night and scribbled on the back of a pub napkin, and yet she’s not too posh. She’s found a fine line between grand formality and genuine emotion, and she sits on it for the full forty-three minutes of the album while Yaghi Malka and Ehud Gerlich drone thoughtfully on the double-bass and cello, and Oren Fried taps a slow-paced drum.
‘Slow-paced’ is a description that could be applied to everything on this CD, although ‘gradual’ is kinder and will do just as well. Serruya’s alto hum creeps up on you, taking its time. A four-line excerpt from the work of a different Turkish poet takes five and a half minutes to perform. The different poet is a 17th century wanderer named Karacaoğlan, who, like Hikmet, spent some time in prison, but for different reasons. He had a bad habit of falling in love with the wrong women.
I wish the liner notes told me why they decided to include work by Karacaoğlan and Koroglu as well as Hikmet, but they don’t. Karacaoğlan “feels for his fellow man and cannot bear … injustice,” the notes say, and Koroglu “shows he has a heart that is cunning and good hard tender and sensitive” (sic), so perhaps they’re meaning to suggest that Hikmet’s qualities were shared by other Turkish poets. (Sartre called him a “brave militant, merciless enemy of the enemies of the human.”) But that’s a guess. Really, for all I know, they ran out of Hikmet covers and decided to use the other two as padding.
Yes, you say, that’s all very well, but shut up about poets for a second. Should I buy the album or not? Well, if you want meditative, dignified music that seems determined to lull you into a trance and keep you there, then my answer would be, “Yes.” If you want something hurried and loud then I’d say, “No.” If you want to listen to Hikmet in English, then it’s “No” again. Pick up the Byrds’ Fifth Dimension and listen to their sitar-backed version of ” I Come and Stand at Every Door” instead. Better yet, buy one of Hikmet’s books. The Poems of Nazim Hikmet: Revised and Expanded Edition from Persea Books is supposed to be worth a look. You might as well try Pamuk too, if you haven’t already.
Pamuk’s trial, by the way, was abandoned, and he got away with nothing more severe than public censure, a book-burning, and a crowd of people throwing eggs at him. Hikmet should have been so lucky.