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Life's Good Brother [Paperback]

Nazim Hikmet , Mutlu Konuk Blasing

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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Pronouns and Tenses Jan. 18 2014
By Roger Brunyate - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
"The servant girl led the way and Ahmet followed. They entered the courtyard. It was big, dark, and cool. But why does the girl walk on tiptoes? Is someone sick in the house? Then, before I know it, I'm walking like her, damn it, as if afraid of waking someone. Ahmet started clacking his metal heeltaps. Just to make a point."

The opening paragraph of this novel-memoir by distinguished Turkish poet NÔzim Hikmet, written from exile in Russia in 1962, already illustrates several key aspects of the book. First, it is full of images that are simple but very clear. Second, it switches rapidly between a third-person description of a young man called Ahmet, and the first-person observer, the author but also Ahmet, looking back at a remove. And third, it moves between the present tense and the past; the one thing that this excerpt does not show is how it occasionally shifts into the future also.

Given that it moves backwards and forwards in time with constantly shifting perspectives, this is not an easy book to get into. It may help to realize that one anchoring sequence, coming and going throughout the book, is set in a cottage in Izmir in 1925, where Ahmet is living with a friend named Ismail, preparing to set up a clandestine printing press to distribute communist literature. Ahmet has been bitten by a dog, and rather than risk almost certain capture by going to hospital in Istanbul, he elects to remain in hiding for the month-long incubation period to see if he has rabies. Another continuing sequence, interleaved with that, shows him as a student in Moscow in the early twenties, where he falls in love with the enigmatic and fiercely independent Anyuska. Other episodes appear to be scenes from his childhood, or flashes forward to various later imprisonments and excruciating tortures.

But nothing is clearly signposted. Though cerebral, the introduction by translator Mutlu Konuk Blasing helps, but I found I had to go back and reread it in the middle of the novel before either it or the book made much sense. Of course, everything was made more difficult by my scanty knowledge of Turkish history and relative unfamiliarity with proper names and honorifics. But I was stimulated by Hikmet's unique approach to storytelling, and, as I said, by many of his images. I got a real feeling for the Anatolian countryside, for the heady days of youthful communist fervor, for impassioned argument and shy but passionate love. There is a palpable sense of being a wanted man and suffering for one's beliefs. And there are a few set pieces, such as the reaction in Moscow to the death of Lenin, or a provincial performance of OTHELLO in which all but the two leading characters were improvising, which are truly splendid. All in all, not bad recompense for a most demanding book.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Poet's Autobiography as Novel Jan. 4 2014
By Thomas F. Dillingham - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Hikmet's Life's Good, Brother is a poet's novel. That is, along with being a novel by a writer who is renowned as a great poet--according to many, the "Father" of modern Turkish poetry--it is also a novel that uses, effectively, many tactics associated with his narrative poetry. Readers familiar with Hikmet's magnificent "epic novel in verse," Human Landscapes from My Country, will experience moments that remind them of Hikmet's use of the kinds of striking juxtapositions, based on sharp, tight observations of human character and behavior as well as physical objects and environments, that let him create multilayered and complex scenes that illuminate rather than obscure or complicate the social and political conditions he is concerned to portray in the lives of his characters. To say that it is a poet's novel is not to say that it is lyrical in any conventional sense; rather, it features the rhetorical and imagistic gestures of the poet in the service of a narrative that reveals the human struggles, the brutality and heroism, that went with the revolutionary efforts of people in many areas of the world during the 20th century, focusing especially on the transformations of Turkey as a nation.

The novel is, we are told by its translator, substantially autobiographical, and may be said to have only two underlying characters -- Hikmet, himself, and the "nation" of Turkey as a collective self -- but those two are divided into several voices with different names and situations. This allows Hikmet to focus variously on aspects of the revolutionary history of Turkey that he experienced. As a committed Marxist, he was persecuted, arrested, censored, finally exiled during his lifetime, but he never lost (as is obvious from his writings) his deep love for Turkey and his fellow Turks--even those who were his political enemies and persecutors.

The narrative of Life's Good, Brother shifts both places and times; one of the main characters, Ahmet,
is a journalist and activist who goes into hiding at the beginning of the novel, hoping to establish a clandestine press where he can print and distribute news about political change in Turkey; the authorities are determined to prevent any such publications, so he hides in a remote rural area, but his situation is complicated by his being bitten by a stray dog that is very likely rabid; isolated and forced to stay in hiding, Ahmet and his friend, Ismail, find that the incubation period for rabies is 40 days, and so they begin to count, watching Ahmet closely for any signs of the symptoms of the onset of rabies. During this time, Ahmet triggers memories of time spent in Moscow as a student during the 1920s, witnessing the early stages of the development of the Russian soviet era, encountering students from other areas of the world (China, France), and falling in love with a revolutionary woman, Anushka. Scenes in Russia are interspersed with his hiding and waiting for the symptoms to appear; he has told his friend, Ismail, that if he does develop rabies, Ismail must shoot him and bury him secretly. He keeps track of the waiting period by drawing a line in chalk on the door of their hideout, and the chapter divisions are identified by the line numbers as the two watch and wait.

Ismail is the second most prominent character and his story picks up later in the 1920s, when he is arrested for illegal political activities (including his involvement with Ahmet and the printing press), and he realizes that Ahmet was right to believe that almost no one could be trusted in the turmoil of political conflict that set natural allies against each other when they needed to protect themselves from the authorities; everyone mistrusts everyone else, even close friends and lovers. Ismail is tortured horrifically in prison, scenes that are particularly painful reading and run parallel, in a sense, to the growing tension as each day passes in the wait for Ahmet's body to declare whether he does or does not have rabies. In the meantime, the political activities, the negotiations, the schemes and the failures of the revolutionaries go on.

This novel is uncommon in its structure and narrative, powerful in its portrayal of committed revolutionaries, moving in the exploration of the interplay of public and private commitments and emotions. It is a work I recommend highly.

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