Literature of Exile: Nâzım Hikmet and Human Landscapes from My Country

Starting where so many journeys have begun or ended, at the iconic Haydarpaşa railway station on Istanbul’s waterfront, Nâzım Hikmet’s Human Landscapes from My Country paints a kaleidoscopic portrait of Turkey in the WWII era.

Following first the 3:45 p.m. train with its motley cast of third-class passengers and then the 7 p.m. express, carrying jacket-clad officers and dignitaries, into the Anatolian countryside, Human Landscapes is cinematic in its scope and intimate in its observations. These qualities become all the more striking due to the fact it was written from inside prison walls, making it part of Turkey’s long tradition of literature by jailed dissidents.

Born in 1902 to a well-to-do family in Thessaloniki – then part of the Ottoman Empire, now a city in northern Greece – Hikmet spent most of his adult life behind bars or in exile due to his communist beliefs. He started work on Human Landscapes, his magnum opus, while serving a 13-year prison stint in Turkey for trying to incite a military revolt, the “evidence” being that soldiers were reading his politically tinged poems.

Hikmet wears his convictions on his sleeve in Human Landscapes. Relating the tale of one ill-fated young man, he writes: “But Selim was no Communist. / He didn’t even know what communism was. / He was just eighteen years old / And wanted fifty kurush instead of twenty-five / and ten hours instead of fourteen. / But the cops thought different. / They laid Selim on the floor. / And when Selim got up, / he couldn’t step on his feet.”

In another passage, Hikmet rails against the hypocrisy and greed of the ruling class in a tirade that feels just as relevant – and just as potentially subversive and risky – today:

They sell the country with one hand

                        and write about patriotism with the other.

What do these bastards know about love of country?

Love of what country?

Love of positions, warehouses, factories,

                        farms, and apartment buildings.

Take away their property and capital

and pull their chairs out from under them,

and the country would be enemy soil to these guys.

But the book is no ideological screed. Hikmet writes beautifully and movingly about daily life; human frailty, love, and courage; and the world from which he was separated for so many years:

When it’s spring in the country

                        on afternoons like this,

as the light softens like a love song,

as the shadows of trees

                        stretch out on the ground,

                                    cool and at ease…

the happy heart grieves

                        with the sorrow of being in the world today.

Subtitled “an epic novel in verse” in its 2002 English translation, Human Landscapes sprawls over 17,000 lines, telling dozens of stories of people from all walks of life. “It’s getting longer and longer, but what can I do?” he wrote in a letter in 1944, describing his progress on the book. “Life is so various, people and their lives so curious, and I am so greedy, so eager to put it all in one book, that I can never call an end to it.”

That deeply felt sense of humanism suffuses Hikmet’s work, an oeuvre that includes novels, poems, and theatrical plays. Hailed as Turkey’s first modernist poet, he wrote eloquently but clearly in free verse, using everyday language and rich emotion that transcended borders. His works have been translated into more than 50 different languages, making him one of the best-known Turkish writers worldwide.

Though Hikmet’s writing was often firmly grounded in the social and political realities of his day, there’s also a timeless quality to many of his verses, like these lines from his poem Invitation that were oft-invoked during mass protests in 2013 against the threatened destruction of Gezi Park in central Istanbul:

To live like a tree, alone and free

And like a forest, in a brotherly way

This is our longing…

International figures including Pablo Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre, Paul Robeson, and Pablo Neruda campaigned for Hikmet’s release from prison, but he was only freed as a result of a general amnesty in 1950. The following year, Hikmet left Turkey, fearing continued political persecution and the death threats made against him. He fled to the Soviet Union, where he had studied at university, and lived there until he died of a heart attack in 1963. His remains are still buried in Moscow, despite sporadic campaigns to repatriate them. Hikmet’s Turkish citizenship was stripped from him when he went into exile and only restored posthumously more than half a century later, in 2009.

A ban on his poetry remained in place in Turkey until 1965, and substantial passages of Human Landscapes were censored in early versions of the book. (The 2002 translation by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk is the first English edition to contain the text in full.) But Hikmet still became – and remains – one of the most popular writers in Turkey, as well as a cultural icon, with his face and words showing up on street art and statues alike.

And despite it all, Hikmet never lost his love for his country: “I’ve swung on its plane trees, / I’ve slept in its prisons. / Nothing lifts my spirits like its songs and tobacco,” he wrote in the poem Istanbul House of Detention. Nor did he abandon his hope for a better world, a hope conveyed poignantly by these lines from 24 September 1945, among the most cherished of the many he penned:

The most beautiful sea hasn’t been crossed yet.

The most beautiful child hasn’t grown up yet.

Our most beautiful days we haven’t seen yet.

And the most beautiful words I wanted to tell you I haven’t said yet…

– – – –

Jennifer Hattam is a journalist based in Istanbul, writing about arts and culture and environmental, political, social, and urban issues for publications including Atlas Obscura, CityLab, The Daily Beast, Discover, Hyperallergic, Thomson Reuters Foundation, and The Washington Post. 

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