One of the drawbacks to running this website is that I rarely read books that are still in print. Browsing in new book stores is always frustrating. I find things I’d love to read, but then struggle to justify the time that would take away from reading books I should cover on this site.
Last week, however, I couldn’t resist buying a new book. We were at the Istanbul airport waiting for our flight back to Brussels and my wife and I were killing time browsing in the D&R store in the international terminal. There was a small section of English translations of Turkish literature, and in it, a copy of Nazim Hikmet’s Human Landscapes from My Country, published by Persea Books in 2009. I thumbed through it and saw that it was a long poem (Hikmet’s subtitle is “An Epic Novel in Verse”), which would usually constitute strike two for me. I have to confess that I do not read as much poetry as I should.
But I soon found myself five pages into the book, almost inhaling the text like air. Although writing (mostly) in blank verse, Hikmet’s style is transparent and effortless to read. Unlike the only other verse novel I’ve read (Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, which I did enjoy and do admire greatly), Human Landscapes from My Country could be published as prose with little effect on the meaning–though certainly not the form–of the text. I decided to buy it, and read over 150 pages in the course of our flight back. I went on to devour its over-450 pages in the course of a few days.
The poem opens on the steps of the Haydarpa?a train station, one of the landmarks of the shoreline of the Asian side of Istanbul, in the spring of 1941. Hikmet takes us into the thoughts of Master Galip, an unemployed man in his fifties: “When will I die?/Will I have a bed to die in?” Then Hikmet’s focus shifts to a homeless boy, then to a middle-aged woman originally from the Caucasus, then to Corporal Ahmet, a veteran of the wars (Balkan, Great and Greek). In these first few pages, we are introduced to a cross-section of Turkish society, including Halil, a political prisoner who serves as something of a fictional persona for Hikmet. Some of them are about to depart on the 3:45 PM train for Ankara and points east. Others will travel in style on the Anatolia Express. Through the rest of Book One of the novel, we will follow the 3:45–the cheap, slow train–and its passengers. Then, in Book Two, we ride with the businessmen, fonctionaires and bourgeoisie on the Express, a modern and comfortable sleeper.
Book Three is set in an Anatolian prison and a hospital where Halil is taken to treat his growing blindness. Again, we meet a variety of characters representing different aspects of Turkish society. Hikmet’s vision is broad and all-embracing, as he deal with peasants still firmly rooted in feudal and tribal ways, intellectuals at various points along the political spectrum, government spies, crooks, and women (who are almost universally viewed as property, work animals, or sex objects). He shows an intimate understanding of the effect of imprisonment on both the prisoners and their loved ones:
A woman whose husband’s in prison always looks
in the mirror, always.
More than other women,
she fears getting old.
She wants the man she loves to like her still when he gets out,
if it’s thirty years later.
The centerpiece of Book Four is a series of dealings in grain sales in which the old ways come into conflict with the rigid, control-oriented mindset of the government and lead to a riot. And in Book Five, Hikmet places Turkey into the context of the world war going on all around it. This section contains the weakest part of the novel, a passage depicting the heroic defense of Moscow in December 1941 by a small band of Russian soldiers. It’s the sort of hackneyed drivel that belonged in some piece of Soviet propaganda and is completely out of place in this book. But maybe it helped Hikmet earn a roof over his head later on.
It’s a brief lapse, in any case, and the novel closes with a moving sequence in which Hikmet takes us to a small town along the Mediterranean coast and introduces us to a few characters killing time in a seaside cafe. They then watch as two boatloads of Greek men, women and children, trying to escape from German occupation, slowly come into the harbor. The Turks take up a collection to buy them food, but soon the police come along and force the boats to cast off, ignoring the Greek’s uncertain fate. Turkey managed to stay out of the fighting in World War Two, but, as Hikmet shows, it came at the cost of constant moral compromises. In that way, Human Landscapes from My Country reminds me of the first book I read in 2012, Maxence van der Meersch’s Invasion.
Hikmet’s technique of rapid cuts works well in creating a collage of “human landscapes.” Here, for example, is part of the cross-section he builds from one moment during the night of September 3rd, 1941:
rose from the table
The others stood up, too.
“If you don’t mind, I’m going to bed–
please don’t get up.”
Tahsin (the doctor-Representative)
“Intelligence goes to sleep this early?”
Monsieur Duval talked with Jazibe Hanum:
“I like your peasants–
they’re patient and don’t make demands.
Your merchants aren’t bad, either,
and your government men are harmless.
Above all, you need to develop your agriculture.
And you need to get rid of statism . . .”
Emin Ulvi Achikalin, the Izmir merchant, sat with his head full of figures
for about a hundred thousand in currants, raisins, and figs.
Kasim Ahmedoff belched
and the lips of the girl sweet as a mandarin orange
On the Anatolia Express
two women sat talking in a second-class section
They were fifty,
and both showed
their fifty years.
Nimet Hanum sat in the same section.
A young woman,
she works at a ministry.
She isn’t beautiful,
but she has something else–
a certain warmth.
Hikmet, who is considered by many to be the greatest Turkish poet of the 20th century, wrote Human Landscapes while serving a sentence of twenty-eight years in a prison near Bursa. He had been convicted by the ?nönü government for being a member of the Turkish Communist Party, which has been banned since the early 1920s. Hikmet’s sentence was cut short in 1950 after he staged a hunger strike that gained national attention and led to organized protests. He was forced into exile soon after and spent most of the rest of his life in the Soviet Union. The book was banned in Turkey for many years.
Human Landscapes was translated into English by Randy Blasing, a poet himself, and his Turkish wife, Mutlu Konuk. A shorter version was published–also by Persea Books–in 1983. I can’t speak for the faithfulness of the translation, although a Turkish colleague of mine confirmed that she went through the book like lightning when she first read it. And I certainly feel no need to justify the time I took away from my stack of out-of-print books to read Human Landscapes from My Country. It’s a terrific book that will, I hope, forever remain in print as a classic piece of 20th century literature.