Epic poems were things they used to write in the olden days to record the deeds of heroes and recount the histories of earth shattering events. They most definitely were never about the likes of you and me, nor did they bother themselves with the minutiae of everyday life. Even if they ever did talk about lessor mortals, they were written in language that made them inaccessible to all but the most highly educated.
Now that we are into the twenty-first century, the idea that any art form's subject would be limited to somebody or something because of status sounds ridiculous to our ears. Yet the idea that an epic poem could be about something other than a hero, or written in vernacular instead of elegant language, is as alien to our ears as it would have been a thousand years ago. Yet in the 1940s, not only did Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet commence work on an epic poem about the people of his country, he wrote in a style that could easily be understood by anyone with basic literacy skills.
A complete translation into English of his Human Landscapes From My Country, published by Persea Books and distributed in Canada by Penguin Canada, is now available for the first time. Hikmet began writing it in 1941 while a political prisoner in his native Turkey, and only finished it in 1950 when he was released as part of a general amnesty. Parts of it were published in translation in 1960 and '65 in France and Italy, and in the former Soviet Union in 1962, but it wasn't until after his death in 1963 that it was published in his homeland.
To understand this work you need to know something about Nazim Hikmet, and about Turkey. Hikmet was born in 1903 (there seems to be some dispute over his birth date as I've read everything from 1900 to 1903) in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. By the end of WWI Turkey had gone from an empire whose borders stretched from the Balkans to Egypt, to being the size it is today. Hikmet was born into a family of progressive intellectual professionals, and was exposed to poetry at an early age through his artist mother and poet grandfather. He had his first poems published in 1917, but after the war he left Allied occupied Turkey to attend university in Moscow where he was exposed to artists and writers from all over the world.
He returned to Turkey when it declared independence in 1924, but quickly ran afoul of the new republic and was arrested for working on a leftist magazine. He managed to escape and flee to Russia, only to return again in 1928 during a period of general amnesty. Although he was able to publish nine books of poetry and worked as a proof-reader, journalist, scriptwriter, and translator over the next ten years, he also spent time in jail on various political charges. In 1938 he was arrested and sentenced to 25 years in jail for "writing poems that encouraged thoughts of mutiny in navel officers".
As an intellectual leftist Hikmet had very little contact with people outside his class and education background until he was sentenced to jail in 1938 and found himself immersed in their world. Meeting these people and being forced to see the world from their point of view was what inspired him to begin working on Human Landscapes From My Country. Not only did he want to describe who these people were and what their lives were like, he wanted to do so in such a manner that they would be able to read it. So Landscapes is a lot like a sketchbook as it's filled with descriptions of people and places that Hikmet encountered during his roughly 13 years in prison.
"In the third class waiting room / two red headed Bulgarian immigrants / with blue buttons on their shirts / and homespun yellow pants worn at the knees / squat / on the concrete / against the wall / instead of sitting on the wooden benches." With only a minimum of words Hikmet has drawn a picture that not only gives us a physical description of the men, but tells us something of their station in life. They are obviously poor, as they are wearing threadbare pants and shirts whose original buttons have been replaced, but there's more to this picture than just a description of poverty. You can be sure that Hikmet has mentioned them not using the benches for a reason, but why? Whatever the reason, Hikmet has not only given us enough information to visualize the scene, but has also done so in such a way that his readers will see the men as segregated from the rest of the train's passengers. Any Turkish person reading this will be aware that the Ottoman Empire warred with Bulgaria at one time and understand the implications of that separation.
The train they are waiting to board is carrying a variety of people across Turkey: three prisoners being transferred and their guards, a student, a small time crook, a widow, a pregnant woman travelling alone, a mother and a daughter, and a variety of other people. These are the occupants of third class carriage number 510, and as Turkey alternatively speeds and creeps by their windows, we drop in and out of various conversations and individual's memories. A former soldier recounts the horrors of Gallipoli (WWI battle between Turkish and Australian/British troops that was a slaughter for both sides) and the awful conditions for the wounded: "My wounds got maggots. / I open my cape: / little white worms / with black heads. / I bend over to look, / but the critters are smart: / when they see me, / they scurry back in the wounds."
There's nothing romantic about those blunt words, and you try and imagine what it would be like to carry that memory with you for so long. Gallipoli was in 1915 and the train ride is taking place in 1941. Twenty-six years later and still his strongest memories are of war and maggots in his wounds. Yet he's so matter of fact about it, that not once do you feel like he's seeking sympathy or complaining. It's just how things were.
Human Landscapes From My Country carries the subtitle "An Epic Novel In Verse", yet unlike most novels it doesn't just follow the fortunes of one or two characters, it draws a picture of a people and a country. Using the same straight-forward, and sometimes graphic language, that I've cited here throughout, Hikmet has created a panoramic view of Turkey and her people. Through the eyes of the various people he sketches we are given a view of what life was like in Turkey from the end of the Ottoman Empire to the start of WWII. At turns poignant, funny, and thoughtful, it is always eminently readable and wonderfully accessible.