The Turkish Image in the Turk from Poniky

The poem I shall be discussing, The Turk from Poniky, is, I believe, quite an important poem as for the demonstration of the Turkish image in central Europe, and especially, in this case, in Slovakian culture and literature. I shall first give a brief summary of the poem, give my commentary, and finally conclude with a comparison of the poem with a story also discussed in the second chapter of Mit ve Tarih Arasında: Orta Avrupa Edebiyat Tarihinde Türk İmgesi titled Vavro Brezula, which belongs to the same period with the poem and is very much in the same vein.

The Turk from Poniky begins with the Turks’ coming to Poniky, and not just for sightseeing, but with the intention of raiding and plundering. They are depicted here almost as psychopaths, who seem to have no sympathy for lives of those who are not also Turks and to be lusting for blood. They go around grouping the old of Poniky together, as the young have long fled. One of the Turk soldiers finds this sweet old woman hiding under a bush, shivering in fear, and, instead of showing her respect for her old age, or at least going easy on her, the soldier, who we later find out is the woman’s own “Turcin” son, treats her inhumanely, wraps around her hands heavy irons, puts her on a leash like a pup, and ties the leash to his horse, dragging her around, over and down hills, whipping her if she dares to stop for a moment, and laughing at her helpless state, deriving some twisted, sadistic pleasure from her endless suffering (“No pleasure but meanness”, as the Misfit of A Good Man Is Hard to Find would remark). Once they arrive at what is presumably Constantinople, which takes quite a long time (about three months) thanks to the vastness of the Ottoman Empire, we are faced with the Turks’ “paganism”: there is not a single cross to be found in this huge city: it’s worthless, a disgrace, however grand it may seem, and for this reason will be refused by the old woman at the end of the poem.

In the second half of the poem, the Turcin brings the old woman to his household as a slave, and makes her look after his newly born son of a “Turkish woman like a rose”, whose description as such perhaps gives us a glimpse of the oriental views of a European man on Turkish women: beauteous, fertile, and perhaps promiscuous, locked behind in their mysterious harems (though this isn’t emphasised here, as it is in Mikes’ letters, for example). Then, the old lady picks up the baby, and, sings to him that he is her grandson. The Turcin is not happy with this, of course, and argues with her, who reveals to him and his wife the truth (?), that the Turcin is actually her son, taken away from her side by the Turks when he was only 3 years old as a devshirme, whom she recognized by the “star-shaped mark on his side”. The Turcin and his wife, immediately believing her word (I should note that this fact is never cast doubt on in the poem, it’s me who’s doing so), apologise to her, and offer her everything she asks for, to live her life from that point onwards with them, treated as if she were a Sultana, if you will, but the old woman refuses, remarking that she wouldn’t exchange a single thing for her native lands, and that it is her wish to be buried next to her ancestors upon her death, and that it’s impossible for her to stay. Slovakian pride conquers over all the jewels, all the fluff of the Orient.

An interesting, and crucial, aspect of this poem is that it was written in 1863, when the Ottoman Empire was on its deathbed, having an existential crisis, struggling during its Tanzimat period. They were not at all a threat anymore, they were quite feeble, in fact, and the classical Oriental view of big nations such as England and France, of the Orient being weak, irrational, doomed and what not, could be said to be vindicated. Yet, in this poem, the Ottomans are depicted in their full, former glory. Why would this ever be the case, wouldn’t the Slovaks now begin to write about how they have triumphed over their former enemies, and have emerged victorious after all? Wouldn’t they be celebrating the Ottomans’ decline, and writing celebratory poems in accordance with this? Does it make sense to write such a poem at such a time? It does, actually, but only when we realise the fact that the Slovaks, just because the Ottomans’ days were long past, weren’t left without an enemy, weren’t free after all, and their new “enemies” being not the Oriental peoples anymore but in fact European ones: the Austrians and the Hungarians who were, in Slovak literature of the time, represented by the Turks, as a displaced metaphor. The Slovaks couldn’t directly criticise these two peoples, as they were their superiors of sorts, Austrians making up the most privileged part of the Habsburg Empire, and especially not after the unsuccessful revolts which took place in the former half of the 19th century, resulting in the Austrians ruling with absolute power. For this reason, they chose the Turks as a safe bet to vomit, if you will, all their disgust, all their pent up feelings on, the Turks were a safe target after all, with their being a common former enemy for all the peoples of the Habsburg Empire. What harm could the Austrians and Hungarians discern in these innocent books dealing with the Ottomans, and no one but?

To further showcase this, one may talk of several works of Bozena Nemcova, chiefly her O Turkovi a krasne Katerine and Vavro Brezula, though I myself will be focusing here only on the latter. In Vavro Brezula, while the titular protagonist of the story is away, his village is attacked, and his house invaded by the Turks, who capture her wife, and force her to cook a meal for them, with intentions of taking her away as a slave after they have feasted. While she’s cooking, her husband returns and, enraged at what he witnesses, filled with bloodlust, he chops each and every single one of them up, reducing them to unrecognisable pieces of meat, the story having a cannibalistic, dark side to it (Sabatos 94). In the second part of the story, the Turkish forces send back-up forces to the village, and Brezula tries to garner support to defend the village, but to no avail, as the “chicken-hearted Germans” refuse to help. He, then, proceeds to triumph over the Turks without any help, and becomes a folk hero.

Just as it was the case with The Turk from Ponicky, here we see the Turks as a displaced metaphor. The Turks, who invade his village, his house, basically his nation, in actuality represent the Austro-Hungarians, who’ve come to dominate the smaller nations in the empire, and, in this case, the Slovaks (Sabatos 94). But once again, the author is not able to say this directly, she cannot ever accuse the Austro-Hungarians openly for their misdeeds, and cannot tell them that they are a destructive, bloodsucking force, no better than the Turks of the past centuries, and that there shall come a time when the Slovaks will be triumphant. As Gustav Zechenter-Laskomersky remarks in his Z Slovenska do Carihradu: “. . . everyone’s time shall come” (Sabatos 109), ostensibly commenting on the miserable state of the Ottoman Empire in the latter half of the 19th century, while, of course, implying the Austro-Hungarians. And indeed, he was, and the Slovaks as a whole were, right; their time did come, but at what cost?

As we can clearly see today, though the Austro-Hungarians of the time couldn’t, and especially in light of Mit ve Tarih Arasında and our courses, the Turks play a huge, yet ambiguous, role for the Central Europeans, a role which is quite different from the one they play for the bigger European nations who have a more conventional Orientalist outlook on them. The Turks, for Central Europeans, can never be described by a single, definitive adjective, they are both barbarians and liberators, foes and friends, themselves, but also Austro-Hungarians at times, and perhaps because of this they could be considered a scapegoat for their need for self-fashioning, placed and displaced at their will; they are what they are needed to be, between myth and history.

References

Sabatos, Charles Daniel. Mit ve Tarih Arasında: Orta Avrupa Edebiyat Tarihinde Türk İmgesi. Trans. Oğuz Cebeci and Charles Daniel Sabatos. Istanbul: Bilge Kültür Sanat, 2014. Print.