Human Landscapes from My Country

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Human Landscapes from My Country

by Nazim Hikmet

THE LITRARY WORK

An epic poem set mainly in Turkey between 1908 and 1950; complete version published in Turkish (as Memleketimden insan manzaralari) in 1966–67, in English in 2002.

SYNOPSIS

The epic highlights the struggles of ordinary heroes in the class conflict of the early-to-mid twentieth century.

Events in History at the Time of the Epic

The Epic in Focus

For More Information

Nazim Hikmet (1902–63), the foremost poet of modern Turkish literature, had a turbulent life, full of prison sentences and exile because of his uncompromising commitment to freedom and justice. He was born in Salonica (now Thessalonica in Greece) in 1902 to a family of the cosmopolitan Ottoman elite. Hikmet studied French at a prestigious high school in Istanbul, then attended the Naval Academy, where he wrote his first poems. He traveled to Anatolia to join the anti-imperialist resistance against the occupation of Turkey after the First World War, and afterward to Russia. There he studied economics and sociology at the Communist University for the Workers of the East in Moscow and encountered revolutionary currents of thought. Hikmet was influenced by the ideology of Vladimir llich Lenin as well as the avant-garde artistic experiments of the poets Sergei Esenin and Vladimir Mayakovsky, and by the theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold. His encounters with the effects of war and poverty inspired Hikmet to create a new poetry, innovative in language and form, written for the people and about the people. Returning to Turkey in 1928, he became the leader of an avant-garde movement in literature, publishing several collections of poems, essays, and plays that promoted his innovations. In 1938, after being arrested several times for his outspoken political views, Hikmet was sentenced to 28 years in prison by a military court on false charges of inciting revolt in the armed forces. In jail he encountered peasants, workers, the unemployed, and other common people whose lives became the collective source for his epic poetry. Released in 1950 and forced to live in exile thereafter, Hikmet died in 1963, the best-known poet of Turkey at the time but ironically a non-Turkish citizen banished from his homeland (his works would be banned in Turkey until the mid-1960s). Hikmet left behind more than 20 collections of poetry, three novels, two fairytale collections, 25 plays, and two collections of letters. His most ambitious project, Human Landscapes from My Country is an “episodic saga” that covers 42 years and includes dozens of “common” life stories not recorded in the official histories.

Events in History at the Time of the Epic

A war-torn age

Human Landscapes spans the years 1908 to 1950, nearly half a century. The era is a tumultuous one, encompassing two world wars, the Bolshevik and Chinese revolutions, and the anti-imperialist struggles in Turkey, as well as other occupied or colonized territories of the world.

Economic and territorial rivalries among Great Britain, Germany, France, Austria-Hungry, and Russia intensified at the end of the nineteenth century. Among the zones of contention was the decaying Ottoman Empire; the question of its partition, the “Eastern Question,” was continuously being raised. The powers avoided serious conflict through a carefully balanced alliance system, which was upset by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand after Austria annexed Bosnia Hercegovina. The assassination touched off the First World War (1914–18). After four grim years, the Allies (England, France, Russia, the United States, and others) defeated the Axis powers (Germany, Austria-Hungry, the Ottoman Empire, and others) at the cost of 10 million dead and 20 million wounded. Minimum estimates, these figures do not include all the deaths caused by starvation and epidemics once the war ended. Hikmet comments on the staggering toll in Human Landscapes: “Mehmets [common name for privates in the Turkish army] everywhere, everywhere troops on the move. / They leave hungry and thirsty, they come back crippled” (Hikmet, Human Landscapes, p. 37).

Postwar peace treaties radically changed the map of Europe and the Middle East. The Ottoman Empire disintegrated, and states such as Syria and Iraq were brought into existence. Meanwhile, Germany, held responsible for initiating the war, was burdened with huge reparations payments. Along with other factors, these payments led to an economic crisis that helped fuel the rise of Nazism—the German policy of racist nationalism, expansionism, and government economic control that led to World War II .

The October Revolution of 1917

In late 1917, after weathering successive internal revolutions (February 24–29 and October 24–25), Russia dropped out of the First World War. The Russian Revolution, which overthrew the imperial regime and brought to power the first Communist government, erupted after a long period of unrest under the autocratic rule of a tsar. Coming to Russia from Germany in 1917, Lenin galvanized the Bolshevik political party into action. He sallied forth with slogans such as “End the War,” “All Land to the Peasants,” and “All Power to the Soviets [workers’ and soldiers’ councils]”; the slogans attracted both intellectuals, who were either politically radical or romantically humanitarian, and the workers and peasants, who were tired of food shortages, military recruitments, and battlefront defeats.

Victorious, the Communists established a new government that aimed to construct a society on socialist premises. Peace remained elusive, however, as the Entente Powers (United States, Britain, France, and Japan) came to the aid of the anti-Bolshevik forces in Russia, attacking from all directions. The four-year civil war wreaked havoc on the country, crippling it with famine and casualties, which became the topic of “The Eyes of Hunger” (1922), one of Hikmet’s early successful poems. At the same time, the revolution brought a dynamism to the environment that made Moscow a center of intellectual activity, especially until Lenin’s death in 1924. Hikmet, thriving in this atmosphere from 1922 to 1928, carried back to Turkey the lively spirit, as evident in his poem “Optimism” (1930): “Believe in this: we’ll see beautiful days my children / sunny days / we’ll see/ We’ll sail our boats to the blue seas my children / to the bright blue seas / we’ll sail” (Hikmet, şiirler 1, p. 190; trans. I. Çelik). During Lenin’s rule and after his death, however, the Soviet government developed increasingly into a totalitarian bureaucracy, culminating in the terror-ridden decades of Joseph Stalin’s rule.

The Turkish War of Independence

Nazim Hikmet describes the conflicting moods of defeat and hope after World War I in his Epic of Independence War (which appears in part in Human Landscapes, Book 2). After the war, during the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, the triumphant Allied forces decided to settle the Eastern Question by partitioning the Ottoman Empire. In 1920, the Ottoman government signed the Treaty of Sevres ceding all of eastern Thrace and western Asia Minor to Greece; a large part of the eastern territories to Armenia; and southern Asia Minor, Iraq, and Syria to Italian, British, and French rule. But even before 1920, an anti-imperialist resistance movement took shape in central Asia Minor. The movement, which went so far as to form a resistance government, defied the Ottoman sultan, who collaborated with the occupying forces. Its members initiated a fight for the sovereignty of the territories situated within a soon-to-be-born modern Turkey.

As relayed in Hikmet’s verses, the timing was unfortunate.

Turkish War of Independence  
We saw the flames, we saw betrayal.
Our spirits raged, our flesh endured.
Those who held out were not giants,
bereft of love and passion, but human beings
with their unbelievable weaknesses, scary power,
.........................
The men wore long coats
  and went barefoot...
They had fur hats on their heads
  and in their hearts, grief
  and boundless hope...
Men were defeated, ungrieving and hopeless.
With bullet wounds in their flesh,
they were abandoned in village rooms.
        (Human Landscapes, pp. 157–58)

It took overwhelming energy, following the devastation of the First World War, to build up a resistance movement and equip it with the necessary resources (soldiers, ammunition, and food). Intense fighting broke out in the west between Turkish rebels, led by Mustafa Kemal (later called Atatiirk), and a Greek army, which had been encouraged by the Allies to do battle against the national resistance movement. In 1922 the Turkish rebels scored a final victory over the Greek forces in Izmir, and in 1924 the Treaty of Lausanne was signed, confirming the independence of the new Turkish state under a National Assembly in Ankara. The last Ottoman sultan was sent into exile.

Rise of totalitarianism and World War II

To citizens in the new Republic of Turkey in 1923, the Ottoman past represented a backward and traditional society in contrast with the new modern identity they were fashioning for themselves. After the triumphant War of Independence (1919–23), Turkey embarked on an intensive modernization process. A modified Swiss legal code replaced old religious laws and a modified Latin alphabet replaced the Arabic alphabet. Western units of measurement were adopted. The Western hat replaced the fez, which itself had been adopted barely a century before.

HIKMET ON MODERNIZATION

H ikmet’s poetry rails against excessive reforms [“I think we’ve destroyed all we could, / and we should stop now: / it’s gone far enough. /… We’ve had a revolution, but it is enough, /…Now lets up to our past and our roots” (Human Landscapes, p.120)]. But his poetry also waxes enthusiastic for modernization and the economic, political, and social possibilities it engenders.

The destiny
  of iron
    coal
      and sugar
“and red copper
and textiles
and love and cruelty and life
and the branches of industry
and the sky”
  and the desert
    and the blue ocean,
“of sad riverbeds
and plowed earth and cities”
  will be changed one morning,
one sunrise when, at the edge of darkness,
  pushing against the earth with their heavy hands, they rise up.
          (Human Lantiscapm, pp. 150–51)

Meanwhile, in Germany, social unrest mounted in the midst of an economic depression dating from the Treaty of Versailles. The impotence shown by the rulers of its post-World War I Weimar Republic only aggravated the unrest, leading to political turmoil that culminated in Nazism’s rise to power beginning in 1933. The ascendancy of totalitarian regimes in Germany, Italy, and Japan preceded a second world war brought on by these countries’ ambitious military governments. While Italy seized Ethiopia and Albania, Germany occupied Czechoslovakia. Meanwhile, Britain and France watched and waited, finally declaring war on Germany after its invasion of Poland in 1939. Japan joined Germany and Italy on the Axis side; the Soviet Union and the United States joined Britain and France on the Allied side.

Allied victory in the six-year Second World War (1939–45) occurred only after the two sides had undergone some crucial junctures in the crisis: the Soviet counteroffensive in Stalingrad (1942), which led to the large-scale destruction of Hitler’s eastern army, followed by uninterrupted Russian advances; the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii (1941), which prompted U.S. involvement; and the U.S. use of the atomic bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. After the largest and most costly war in world history, recovery was no easy process. There were long-lasting psychological and physical aftereffects from the Nazi attempts at ethnic, political, and religious extermination and from the American use of nuclear weapons on the Japanese cities. Hikmet protested the deaths in Hiroshima in his poem “Girl Child” (popularized by musician Pete Seeger in the tune “I Come and Stand at Every Door”).

Weakened by the Second World War, Britain and France saw anti-imperialist struggles proliferate in their colonies in Asia and Africa. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union and the United States engaged in a competition for world leadership referred to as the Cold War (1945–89), which at times heated up into indirect but open combat around the globe. The two new superpowers, defined the world according to their competition, delineating separate power zones. On the side of the United States were Western capitalist nations; on the side of the Soviet Union, the Communist bloc nations.

Turkey had adopted a pragmatic foreign policy during World War II, refusing to side with either camp. Meanwhile, autocratic one-party rule by Ismet Inonii gave rise to an opportunistic domestic policy that paralleled the foreign policy, shifting between sympathy for fascist or communist factions, depending on German or Soviet victories throughout the war. Turkey adopted a multiparty system in 1946, and the newly formed Democratic Party came to power in 1950. It allied the country with the Western bloc nations, largely because of the financial support that was being provided by the United States through the Truman Doctrine (1947) and Marshall Plan (1948–52). Although a socialist party was quickly established and won Hikmet’s allegiance, the party could hardly be effective, given the constant threat of American-style anti-communism that existed in Turkey at the time.

The Epic in Focus

Contents overview

As the title of the epic promises, the reader is invited into “human landscapes” from Turkey and the world. Highlighting love, suffering, treachery, and courage, the poem takes us on a journey through a gamut of human emotions and situations. The work resists categorization: it uses free verse and incorporates drama, social history, novel, song, and even cinema script. Its conversational tone of language, montage-like episodic structure, and huge canvas of themes and characters all contribute to its being considered a modern-day epic, or, as one scholar describes it, an “episodic saga of the twentieth century” (Halman, p. 63).

The narrative unfolds chronologically, but the sequence is oftentimes interrupted by a technique perhaps best described as cinematic montage. Hikmet, drawing on his experience as a screenwriter, inserts lives from the past into the narrative of the present by employing flashbacks, jump cuts, zooms, and different angles, all created through language. He moves through time and space by means of newspaper excerpts, radio transmissions, and letters that link Turkish history to international events.

Told in five books, the epic follows a circular path, starting with a journey by train from Istanbul to Anatolia and ending in a return to Istanbul. The main storyline centers on the political prisoner Halil, beginning with his transport to Ankara, then following him in his life in prison. The poem does not, however, spotlight him as hero. Instead Halil is an observer, sometimes the narrator, in a procession of “common” protagonists, such as Corporal Ahmet, worker Kerim, poet Jelal, partisan Zoe, and antagonists, such as submariner Hans Mueller, journalist Nuri Jemil, arms dealer Hikmet Alpersoy, and intellectual Osman Nejip. The epic is a patchwork of substories, recounted not only by an omniscient anonymous narrator but also by all these characters and many others, who relate events occurring around them through their dialogues with each other. The substories about the Soviet resistance, German aggression, modernization in Turkey, and the Turkish War of Independence, for instance, constitute an account of the twentieth

century as seen through the eyes of multiple Turkish observers.

Contents summary

Book 1 moves from a portrayal of Haydarpa§a, the central railroad station in Istanbul, to the heart of Anatolia. The narrative pans to the passengers of a lower-class train that carries peasants, workers, the unemployed, military privates, students, and prisoners out of the station. As the literary camera flits from people to incidents in the past and present, it finds a focus of sorts by centering mainly on the political prisoner Halil, who has been transported to the capital with three of his friends—the worker Fuat, the “underground fighter” Süleyman, and a comrade’s wife, Melahat {Human Landscape, p. 55).

Halil (like Hikmet himself) is an intellectual activist who has been convicted for his ideology and writings. Though separated from his family, treated as a traitor (a spy for the Russians), and subjected to torture and the threat of blindness, he still believes it is the social responsibility of the intellectual to fight for a free, egalitarian, peaceful world and hopes for a better future:

“...one of those sparkling nights of Kalamish Bay
    the stars and the rustle of water,
or the boundless daylight
    in the fields outside Topkapi
or a woman’s sweet face glimpsed on a streetcar
or even the yellow geranium I grew in a tin can
    in the Sivas prison—
I mean, whenever I meet
    with natural beauty,
I know once again human life today must and will be changed ...”
           (Human Landscapes, p. 44)

Optimism surfaces at the other end of the train too. The engineer Alaaddin, a representative of the proletariat, shares Halil’s bright feelings and thoughts about the future, although “Whenever Aladdin looks back / —especially on inclines—he feels as if the cars were roped together / and harnessed to his shoulders” (Human Landscapes, pp. 18–19). Alaaddin converses with Ismail, the fireman of the steam train, about the ways of the world:

... “Boss,
I have another question.
These rails here,
do they go around the whole world?”
“They do.”
“So if there’s no war,
and not just no war
but if no questions are asked at borders,
and we let the engine loose on the rails,
it’ll go from one end of the world to the other?”
“When you say ’sea,’ it stops.”
“You get on ships.”
“Airplanes are better.”
............................
“No problem, man,
we’ll get on airplanes anyway—
not to kill people
but just for the fun of breezing through the sky.”
          (Human Landscapes, p. 20)

Book 1 ends with a suicide. The train is suddenly stopped when a 50-year-old man jumps off, leaving Alaaddin and Ismail sadly speechless as they witness a man defeated by outside forces.

Book 2 presents two simultaneous train rides. While it continues to follow the lower-class transport, it also introduces the wealthy industrialists, merchants, and civil servants who ride another train—the luxury Anatolian Express. In the alienating atmosphere of the luxury train’s dining car, where the bourgeoisie sip their wine and discuss Nazi victories, the waiter and the cook recite an epic of the national liberation of Turkey that celebrates undocumented heroes, ignored by most historians:

“They who are numberless
  like ants in the earth
    fish in the sea
      birds in the air,
who are cowardly
  brave
    ignorant
      wise
        and childlike,
and who destroy
  and create,
my epic tells only of their adventures.’”
          (Human Landscapes, p. 150)

Such promising, revitalizing histories and the occasional glimpse of “a moon outside, and a sea, and a dream sailboat on the sea, / calling to mind/ only big, beautiful, / loving thoughts” interrupt the passengers’ unfeeling conversation (Human Landscapes, p. 127).

In Book 2, another intellectual, Doctor Faik, introduces us to the contaminated web of relations in the first-class dining car that gives rise to this unfeeling conversation. He describes the corrupt bureaucrats, the Turkish and foreign bourgeoisie who collaborate with the Nazis, and the authors and journalists who serve the imperialists. Doctor Faik acknowledges the dynamics of oppression within society, but unlike Halil, he is alienated from his people and does not nurture a belief in change. His tone is biting when his listener calls him a poet because of his elegant description of tyranny’s victims:

These awful things build up inside you
you’re sickened, horrified,
enraged.
and then you look and find your hands are tied.
You can’t do anything.
Then come the words,
  the poeticizing,
    with a little irony
      and a touch of the lyrical-romantic.
          (Human Landscapes, p. 137)

The luxury train keeps moving. As Book 2 closes, the first train arrives at its destination and the prisoners go their separate ways, bound for prisons in Ankara and further east.

The bustling flow of the narrative slows down in Book 3 to prepare the reader for the impassioned rhythm of Books 4 and 5. Book 3 takes us into a prison and a hospital to meet more “common heroes.” Halil languishes in prison, Doctor Faik experiences suicidal alienation, and poor people struggle just to go on living. Everywhere people are constrained by ignorance, poverty, undereducation, and underdevelopment. Halil is taken to an isolated hospital in the Anatolian hinterland to be treated for a painful illness in his eyes by Doctor Faik, and Faik himself ends up committing suicide, frustrated at his inability to channel his intellectual energy into action against the injustices around him. In contrast, Halil feels invigorated by his interaction with the people for whom he will fight. Hamdi dies in the coal mines; Zeynep hoes the fields, rain or shine, to support her husband in prison; “the most hopeful man of the twentieth century,” the factory worker Kerim, stands up to his father, who abuses his mother (Human Landscapes, p. 275); Dumel the peasant comprehends neither the reason for his wife’s illness, nor the necessity of an operation, nor her death. Hikmet again overcomes the mood as he closes Book 3: deaths are followed by a birth, “the first victorious cry of the newborn” (Human Landscapes, p. 333). Halil’s heart is filled with joy as he hears this “most beautiful sound in the world,” reminding him of his own family and hope for renewal (Human Landscapes, p. 333).

Book 4, simulating radio transmission, visits the battlefields of World War II (from the Atlantic Ocean to Moscow). The anonymous narrator, like someone descending to Hades, speaks to the reader from among the dead at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Hikmet’s compassionate lyricism is mingled with powerful realism while he portrays the Second World War through the deaths of Hans, Thompson, Ivan, and Zoe. We come across a German and a British soldier, Hans and Thompson, lying side-by-side on the ocean floor, “little men” unquestioningly fighting for Fascism and imperialism respectively. Their fate portends the future of Nazi Germany and the British Empire:

Together they swelled up,
and together they rose to the top.
The fish thoroughly enjoyed Thompson,
but they wouldn’t touch the other—
scared, I guess, that Hans’s flesh was poison.
          (Human Landscapes, p. 368)

After some war news, the radio transmits the “Moscow Symphony” to three prisoners standing around it—among them, Halil. The music tells the story of Ivan, Ahmet, Yurchenko, and Sagamanian, soldiers of the Soviet Union’s Red Army, who defended their homeland from “the German people [who] continued to be Hitler’s hunting dogs” (Human Landscapes, p. 375). Then comes a lament for 18-year-old Zoe (the real-life Russian partisan Zoia Kosmodemianskaia [1923–41], code named Tanya); hanged by the Nazis, she “never got [her] share of the sun’s warmth” (Human Landscapes, p. 397). A hymn follows for the French communist journalist and politician Gabriel Peri (1902–41), whose “head, like a beating heart, was ready everywhere: Ethiopia, Spain, China” and who died facing the Nazi firing squad with a song of revolution in his mouth (Human Landscapes, p. 401).

In the fifth book, prisoner Halil returns in his imagination to his beloved city and family through letters from his wife. Halil reads the letters sent by Aysha, which contain words of love and bitterness about the forced partition of 1920. His nostalgia for Istanbul and its multicultural environment emerges:

“ah, Istanbul!
Que quieres, buenos?
Its water, air, fish, strawberries.
Its Turks, Armenians, and Greeks, plus Jews.
I can almost taste it. Ahparin girlas?
          (Human Landscapes, p. 436)

The epic ends as modestly and as dialectically as it began, first describing young Fuat’s optimistic return to Istanbul from prison and then lighting on a poor suicidal family during the years of deprivation in the Second World War. The juxtapositions posit first a better world, then a sobering reminder of the long, painful road to peace and freedom, which is nevertheless envisioned.

Poetry as revolution

Hikmet’s poetic portraits are drawn in communal settings, such as a train or a prison. The vivid collage of biographies are based on real characters whose lives the poet witnessed in a Bursa prison; they are not “generals, sultans, distinguished scientists or artists, beauty queens, murderers and billionaires,” but “workers, peasants and craftsmen, people whose fame had not spread beyond their factories, workshops, villages, or neighborhoods” (Human Landscapes, p. x). The hero of the Turkish War of Independence is not the publicly celebrated Atatiirk, but Ismail from Arhave, who rows his boat to death on a mission to deliver a machine gun for the resistance army. The hero of the Russian resistance to the Nazis is not Joseph Stalin, but Zoia, an 18-year-old partisan executed by the Nazis. Moreover, this epic of “little people” is written in lifelike vernacular dialogue rather than the florid language of eulogies for great men.

In a time of intense nationalism, when traditionalist poets and authors chose to construct a modern Turkish literature based on heroic themes from official national histories and epics, Hikmet preferred international heroes and the solidarity of commoners in global society. The poet moves above the boundaries imposed by nationalisms, his epic attempting to establish a lingua franca. A reflection of his devotion to communism, the poem becomes an international verse, integrating social realist themes with a romantic, even Utopian, tone. Ultimately Hikmet’s revolutionary poetry cannot be separated from his political ideology, through which he envisions humanity fighting for a better tomorrow.

In fact, Hikmet’s unique originality as a poet appears in every component of his poetics: technique, themes, and language. He is the first of the modern Turkish poets to introduce free verse and broken-off lines (or waves) to express details of mundane lives, and emphasize the fluent and conversational tone of language. Hikmet employs elements of spoken Turkish, such as vowel harmony (which endows the spoken language with a musical harmony) and inflection (which enables one to extend verbal repetition in sound while changing the meaning) to create resonance. His waves appear as a loose, one might say, an unordered or free-ranging typography that spreads in ladderlike style over the page, conveying an energetic spirit. The line breaks reflect the abruptness of street vernacular, supporting the use of ordinary people and their take on events as legitimate epic material.

In the late 1920s and 1930s Hikmet initiated a movement in literary criticism called “Demolishing the Idols,” which attacked traditionalist poets for their thematic and structural stagnancy, and ethical irresponsibity. In Human Lanscapes, a soldier denounces the author of the national anthem, Mehmet Akif, for a mystical nationalism that ignores people’s struggles:

“There’s something off about our national anthem,
I don’t know how to say it.
The poet Akif is a believer.
But I don’t believe
everything he does.
.............................
For instance listen:
The days God promised us will come.’
No.
No sign’s descended from the sky about the days to come.
We’ve promised those days to ourselves.”
          (Human Landscapes, p. 195)

Then the poem criticizes Ahmet Hasim, a much praised icon of symbolist poetry, for being detached from social realities: “Ahmet Hasim doesn’t have a single word—open, / amazing, / brave/ just, or hopeful… “/” Is that what poetry is about, doctor?” /” Poetry is about the world./And in today’s world, those are the only things worth saying” (Human Landscapes, p. 168). Along with elitism, the poem attacks defeatism, “giving up hope in humanity,” and “after-dinner philosophizing” in the belief that intellectuals must struggle against oppression (Human Landscapes, p. 218). The hopeful tone that pervades Hikmet’s poetry only underscores his use of it for revolution. He aims to build an international community:

I want my poems to address all my readers’ problems. If a young man falls in love with a girl, he should be able to read my poems to his sweetheart, an old man in the grip of sadness about dying should read my poems, people on the way to a May Day demonstration should read my poems. When a bureaucrat is giving you a hard time, read my poems. A communist writer has to reflect all human feelings.

(Hikmet in Goksu and Timms, p. 298)

Sources and literary context

Nazim Hikmet’s most ambitious project, Human Landscapes was written in prison between 1938 and 1950. His prison experience brought his poetry closer to the spoken language and vastly broadened its scope, as measured by the social classes from which he drew his characters. Originally a much longer work, 17,000 lines survived after confiscations, burning by fearful relatives, and various forms of harassment. Originating as a biographical dictionary that would profile common people’s lives, the epic resulted from Hikmet’s dramatizing the individual heroes of the dictionary into a poetic whole. A subsection about the Turkish War of Independence in Volume 2 and another subsection on the Stalingrad resistance in Volume 5 are abridged versions of his poems “Epic of the National Militia,” and “Moscow Symphony.”

Hikmet had made use of “waves” and repetition to organize his poetry since his encounter with Vladimir Mayakovsky and Russian constructivism in the 1920s. He was consciously searching for a new structure to express contemporary social realities, a modern technique to revolutionize the rigid age-old forms of Ottoman poetry. In his view, the outmoded conventions of Ottoman verse had to be overthrown by a mix of street language and international trends in modern poetry. “How could anyone,” the poet asked, “be called a national poet if he never marked any turning-point in the language of the people, if he never voiced the great struggles of his people?” (Hikmet in Goksu and Timms, p. 88).

In the 1940s Hikmet’s defiance of traditional poetics, along with his search for a way to apply modern realism that would reach the masses, led him to embrace the formal structure of “encyclopedic fiction.” Current events—Hitler’s invasion of Russia and the Second World War—extended his project of recording the lives of ordinary Turkish people to an overview of the twentieth century from Turkey. Overall, Hikmet blended his personal fate—that of a communist poet in Turkey—with the fate of the Turkish people and humanity in the face of wars and economic hardships. His epic is the product of his own misfortunes, the hope he tries to preserve, and his love for homeland, family, and freedom.

Hikmet’s readings of Friedrich Engels’s ideas, of Denis Diderot’s Le Neveu de Rameau (a French novel relating contrasting philosophical positions through vivid dialogue), and most importantly of William Langland’s Piers Ploughman (a medieval English poem in which all sections of society appear in panoramic vision) influenced his creation of Human Landscapes too. Other readings influenced the poem as well. Written during a period of intense modernization in Turkey, Human Landscapes celebrates technological progress for enhancing the quality of life—railways and radios connect distances and eliminate borders. But, with the help of literary analogy, the poem notes some of the detrimental effects of technology too—airplanes kill people and people become half-beasts, “straight out of H. G. Wells’s Island of Dr. Moreau” (Human Landscapes, p. 375).

Publication and reception

Though the publication of Human Landscapes was long awaited in Turkey, it received conflicting assessments. Most reviewers praised the poem for introducing a new form and historical consciousness to lyric poetics. But some criticized it for incoherency. In the view of Talat Sait Halman, “[Human Landscapes] lumps together scenes, faces, and minor occurrences which, superficial and repetitious, do not add up to a vast poetic panorama” (Halman, p. 63). A 1982 abridged translation of the poem into English elicited praise from Robert Hudzik: “Political, social, and historical themes are united by a common vision. Hikmet’s ability to particularize the general helps make this a bold, remarkable work” (Hudzik, p. 1,991). Emily Grosholz raved, “Hikmet has an uncanny way of bringing characters to life in a few lines so vividly that, whether they are scurrilous or noble, one can’t help but care about them” (Grosholz, p. 139). A complete translation of the work in 2002 prompted more commentary about cohesiveness: “The poem is structured as a series of vignettes of people and events, some short and telegraphic, others more discursive. Certain characters run through the whole poem, giving it a unifying thread” (Hanaway, p. 465). A final review refers to the innovative style as well as the content:

Hikmet’s poetic line is terse, staccato, conversational… while rhythmical variation and repetition create a narrative web and flow punctuated by moments of epiphany as someone finds his role, another his voice, to combat centuries of peonage.… Ultimately Hikmet’s art suggests a spaciousness, a grandeur in the details of poor people seeking just to breathe.… Finally available complete in English, Hikmet’s hauntingly eloquent masterpiece never flags.

(Pinker, p. 142)

—Ipek Celik

For More Information

Christie, Ruth, Richard McKane, and T. S. Halman. Beyond the Walls: Selected Poems. Istanbul: Yapi Kredi Yayinlari, 2002.

Fi§ekçi, Turgay. Nazim Hikmet: ya§amöyküsü. Istanbul: Kavram, 1997.

Fuat, Memed. Nazim Hikmet üzerine yazilar. Istanbul: Adam Yayinlari, 2001.

Göksu, Saime, and Edward Timms. Romantic Communist: The Life and Work of Nazim Hikmet. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

Grosholz, Emily. “New Renderings.” The Hudson Review 37, no. 1 (spring 1984): 132–42.

Halman, T. S. “Nazim Hikmet: Lyricist as Iconoclast.” Books Abroad 43, no. 1 (winter 1969): 59–64.

Hanaway, W. L. Review of Human Landscapes. Choice 40, no. 3 (November 2002): 465.

Hikmet, Nazim. Human Landscapes from My Country: An Epic Novel in Verse. Trans. Randy Biasing and Mutlu Konuk. New York: Persea Books, 2002.

_____. Poems of Nazim Hikmet.Trans. Randy Biasing and Mutlu Konuk. New York: Persea Books, 1994.

_____. §iirler 1.Istanbul: Yapi Kredi Yayinlari, 2002.

Hudzik, Robert. Review of Human Landscapes. Library Journal 107, no. 18 (October 1982): 1,991.

Kona, Prash Reddy. “Nazim Hikmet: Human Landscapes and the De-sentimentalization of History.” Literary Studies: Beginnings and Ends. Ed. Nicholas O. Pagan and William S. Haney II. Lanham: University Press of America, 2001.

Pinker, Michael. Review of Human Landscapes. Review of Contemporary Fiction 23, no. 1 (spring 2003): 142.

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Human Landscapes from My Country

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