Nâzım Hikmet: Yaşamak Güzel Şey Be Kardeşim (Life’s Good, Brother)
Nâzım Hikmet was best-known as a poet but also as a Communist, which meant he spent quite some time in prison. Though he wrote mainly poetry, he did write some prose and this fictionalised account of his life, published posthumously, is considered the best of his prose work. He was very ill when he wrote it and he knew that he did not have long to live.
It is primarily set in Izmir in 1925, but looks back to his early years, both in Turkey and in Russia, and forward to his future years, many of which were spent in prison. We follow two main characters. Ahmet is, to a great extent, the Hikmet character. He tells the story in both the first and third person, sometimes switching between first and third person within the same paragraph. Indeed, he jumps not only between first and third person in the same paragraph, but often jumps readily in both time and place, so the story is certainly not told chronologically. The second main character is Ismail. In Ismail, Hikmet said, there are militants I know, and there’s also me.
We follow various stories which, as mentioned, appear and disappear and reappear. We see his time in Russia where he is studying at the university in Moscow, where political economy is his favourite subject. Much of his concern in Moscow is with his love life. He has fallen for a Russian woman, Anushka. She partially reciprocates but seems more friendly with a Chinese student, Si-Ya-U. He is jealous and, though it seems that she sleeps with him, but only goes for walks with Si-Ya-U, he wants her all to himself.
One key event in Moscow is the death of Lenin. There is considerable chaos and much weeping and wailing. Ahmed is selected to represent the university by standing as guard of honour at Lenin’s coffin for five minutes.
The main event is his time in Izmir. He is wanted by the police so he is hiding in a hut with Ismail. They dig a hole in the ground to hide a printing press (in reality just a typewriter) as they are trying to put out a subversive newspaper. In theory, he cannot even open the door to look out in case he is seen but he does sneak out and is bitten by a dog. He learns that there are a lot of rabid dogs in the area and is worried that he might contract rabies. However, the only rabies hospital is in Istanbul and he cannot go there for, even if he were to get there without being seen, the doctors there would recognise him and almost certainly report him to the police. As a result, he has to patiently wait for forty days to see if he has got the disease and his count-down of forty days is a key part of the book. He gives Ismail his gun and tells him that he must shoot him if he does get the disease.
We also see the situation soon after World War I. The Allied Forces have occupied Turkey and the Greeks are massing to take at least part of the country. The Turks kill the Western occupiers whenever they can and, not surprisingly, resent their presence. We see how Ahmed is smuggled out of Istanbul. He ends up in Bolu, where he works as a teacher but somehow manages to have a big influence on the local courts. We only ask if the defendant is rich or poor and whom he offended. If he’s poor and offended a rich man: acquittal. If he’s rich, even if innocent: a sentence.
We also follow Ismail in later life and, in particular, his life in prison, including frequent solitary confinement and even a fake execution. He even has an ongoing romantic relationship and marries the woman while in prison. Remember that Ismail is based in part on Hikmet.
Much of the second part of the book intertwines his story of waiting to see if he has got rabies – there is the occasional scare – and his time in prison. While in prison, he is tortured and sees others tortured. He ends with a poem I’m a worker, love from head to toe.
While the book is autobiographical, it is fictionalised, as we can see from the characters of Ahmet and Ismail who are partially Hizmet and partially others. Hizmet is considered one of Turkey’s finest poets but, in this book, we see his courage and determination (such as risking dying from rabies, not a pleasant death) in fighting for a cause he believes strongly in, namely the rights of workers in early-mid twentieth century Turkey. He suffers torture and he and his comrade Kerim both refuse to talk, denying that they know one another and with Kerim suffering so much, he goes mad and is admitted to an asylum.
Hizmet’s technique of jumping around, from first to third person and back, and to and from different times and places, can initially seem to be confusing but you soon get used to it and it is not too distracting, particularly as his time in the hut with Ismail, waiting to see if he has rabies and (in the second part of the book) his time in prison occupy a significant part of the book. Overall, as Hizmet is such a first-class writer, its reputation as his best prose work is certainly justified.
First published in Turkish by Narodna Prosveta, Sofia, in 1964
First published in Turkish in Turkey by Gün Yayınları in 1967
First published in English by W W Norton in 2013
Note the book was first published in Russian translation (as Жизнь прекрасна, братец мой) in 1964 and a French translation of the book was published later that year (translated by Hikmet’s wife) as Les romantiques : (la vie est belle, mon vieux…) by Éditeurs Français Réunis. It was published in Greek in 1964 as Οι Ρομαντικοι : ομορφη που ‘ναι η ζωη! … : μυθιστορημα and then in Turkish, but published in Bulgaria, also in 1964. It was first published in Turkish in Turkey in 1967.