Excerpts from Gioconda and Si-Ya-U

Nazim Hikmet

to the memory of my friend SI-YA-U,
whose head was cut off in Shanghai


Renowned Leonardo’s
“La Gioconda”
had disappeared.
And in the space
vacated by the fugitive
a copy has been placed.

The poet inscribing
the present treatise
knows more than a little
about the fate

Of the real Gioconda.
She fell in love
with a seductive
graceful youth:
named SI-YA-U.
Gioconda ran off
after her lover;
Gioconda was burned
in a Chinese city.

I, Nazim Hikmet,
on this matter,
thumbing my nose at friend and foe
five times a day,
I can prove it;
if I can’t
I’ll be ruined and banished
forever from the realm and poesy.


Party One
Excerpts from Gioconda’s Diary

15 March 1924: Paris, Louvre Museum

At last I am bored with the Louvre Museum.
You can get fed up with boredom very fast.
I am fed up with my boredom.
And from the devastation inside me
I drew this lesson:
to visit
a museum is fine,
to be a museum piece is terrible!
In this palace that imprisons the past
I am placed under such a heave sentence
that as the paint on my face cracks out of boredom
I’m forced to keep grinning without letting up.
I am the Gioconda from Florence
whose smile is more famous than Florence.
I am bored with the Louvre Museum.
And since you get sick soon enough
of conversing with the past,

I decided
from now on
to keep a diary.

Writing of today may be of some help
in forgetting yesterday…
However, the Louvre is a strange place.
Here you might find
Alexander the Great’s
Longines watch complete with chronometer,

not a single sheet of clean notebook paper
or a pencil worth a piaster.
Damn your Louvre, your Paris.
I’ll write these entries
on the back of my canvas.

And so
when I picked a pen from the pocket
of a nearsighted Americana
sticking his red nose into my skirts
– his hair stinking of wine-

I started my memoirs.

I’m writing on my back
the sorrow of having a famous mile…

18 March: Night

in the Louvre
my days are all the same
like the six sides of a wood cube.
My head is full of sharp smells
like the shelf of a medicine cabinet.

20 March

I admire those Flemish painters:
is it easy to give the air of a naked goddess
to the plump ladies
of milk and sausage merchants?
even if you wear silk panties,
cow + sil panties = cw.

Last night
a window
was left open.
The naked Flemish goddesses caught cold.
All day
turning their bare
mountain-like pink behinds to the public,
they coughed and sneezed…
I caught cold, too.
So as not to look silly smiling with a cold,
I tried to hide my sniffles
from the visitors.

1 April

Today I saw a Chinese: […[
How long
he gazed at me!
I’m well aware
the favor of Chinese
who work ivory like silk
is not to be taken lightly…

11 April

I caught the name of the Chinese who comes every day:

16 April

Today we spoke
in the language of eyes.
He works as a weaver days
and studies nights.

21 April

Today my Chinese
looked me straight
in the eye
and asked:
“Those who crush our rice fields
with the caterpillar treads of their tanks
and who swagger through our cities
like emperors of hell,
are they of YOUR race,
the race of him who CREATED you?”
I almost raised my hand
and cried “No!”

2 May

Today my Chinese failed to show up.

5 May

Still no sign of him…

8 May

My days
are like the waiting room
of a station:
eyes glued
to the tracks…

10 May

Sculptors of Greece,
painter of Seljuk china,
weaver of fiery rugs in Persia,
chanters of hymns to dromedaries in deserts,
dancer whose body undulates like a breeze,
craftsman who cuts thirty-six facets from a one-carat stone,
and  YOU
who have five talents on your five fingers
Call out and announce the both friends and foe:
because he made too much noise in Paris,
because he smashed in the window
of the Mandarin ambassador,
Gioconda’s lover
has been thrown out
of France…

My lover from China has gone back to China…
And now I’d like to know
who’s Romeo and Juliet!
If he isn’t Juliet in pants
and I’m not Romeo in skirts…
Ah, if I could cry –
if only I could cry…
12 May

While the desire to cry writhes inside me
I smile demurely;
lie a stuffed pig’s head
My ugly face grins on…
Leonardo da Vinci,
may your bones
become the brush of a Cubist painter
for grabbing me by the throat – your hands dripping with paint-
and sticking in my mouth like a gold-plated tooth
this cursed smile…

Part Two
The Flight


Ah, friends, Gioconda is in a bad way…
Take it from me,
if she didn’t have hopes
Of getting word from afar,
she’d steal a guard’s pistol,
and aiming to give the color of death
to her lips’ cursed smile,
she’d empty it into her canvas breast…


O that Leonardo da Vinci’s brush
had conceived me
under the gilded sun of China!
That the painted mountain behind me
had been a sugar-loaf Chinese mountain,
that the pink-white color of my long face
could fade,
that my eyes were almond-shaped!
And if only my smile
could show what I feel in my heart!
Then in the arms of him who is far away
I could have roamed through China…


I had a heart-to-heart talk with Gioconda today.
The hours flew by
one after another
like the pages of a spell-binding book.
And the decision we reached
will cut like a knife
Gioconda’s life
in two.
Tomorrow night you’ll see us carry it out…


When my monoplane landed
on the roof of the Louvre,
the clock of Notre Dame
struck midnight.
And strangely enough, I wasn’t afraid
as I patted the aluminum rump of my plane
and stepped down on the roof…
Uncoiling the fifty-fathom-long rope wound around my waist,
I lowered it outside Gioconda’s window
like a vertical bridge between heaven and hell.
I blew my shrill whistle three times.
And I got an immediate response
to those three shrill whistles.
Gioconda threw open her window.
This poor farmer’s daughter
done up as the Virgin Mary
chucked her gilded frame
and, grabbing hold of the rope, pulled herself up…

SI-YA-U, my friend,
you were truly lucky to fall
to a lion-hearted woman like her…


This thing called an airplane
is a winged iron horse.
Below us in Paris
with its Eiffel Tower –
a sharp-nosed, pock-marked, moon-like face.
We’re climbing,
climbing higher.
Like an arrow of fire
we pierce
the darkness.
The heavens rise overhead,
looming closer;


Now our plane swims
within the hot winds
swarming over Africa.
Seen form above,
Africa looks like a huge violin.
I swear
they’re playing Tchaikovsky on a cello
on the angry dark island
of Africa.
And waving his long hairy arms, a gorilla is sobbing…


We’re crossing the Indian Ocean.
We’re drinking in the air
like a heavy, faint-smelling syrup.
And keeping our eyes on the yellow beacon of Singapore
-leaving Australia on the right,
Madagascar on the left-
and putting our faith in the fuel in the tank,
we’re heading for the China Sea…

From the journal of a deckhand named John aboard a
British vessel in the China Sea

One night
a typhoon blows up out of the blue…
The wind is roaring
after blast, […]
The mast quivers like a strung bow.(*)
*[What business do you have being way up there?
Christ, man, what do you think you are – a stork?

What’s that?
A rectangular piece of canvas dropped from the air
into the crows nest.
The canvas
was some kind of woman!
I got right down and kissed her hand,
and making like a poet, I cried:
“O you canvas woman who fell from the sky!
Tell me, which goddess should I compare you to?
Why did you descend here? What is your large purpose?”

She replied:
“I fell
from a 550-horsepower plane.
My  name is Gioconda,
I come from Florence.
I must get to Shanghai
as soon as possible.”


The wind died down,
the sea calmed down.
The ship makes strides toward Shanghai.
The sailors dream,
rocking in their sailcloth hammocks.
A ship plunges on
to Canton
55,000 tons.

Part Three:
Gioconda’s End


My, my!
What a strange place, this Shanghai…

In the blue river boats
with straw sails float.
In the straw-sailed boats
naked coolies sort rice,
raving of rice…


Last night
when the ship entered the harbour
Gioconda’s foot kissed the land.
Shanghai the soup, she the ladle,
she searched high and low for her SI-YA-U.


“[…] Chiang Kai-shek’s executioner
is hunting down a new head.
Stand back! Make way!”

One in front and one close behind,
two Chinese shot around the corner.
The one is front ran toward Gioconda.
The one racing toward her, it was him, it was him-yes, him!
Her SI-YA-U,
her dove,
A dull hollow stadium sound surrounded them.
the crowd yelled:
Just three steps away from Gioconda’s arms
Chiang Kai-shek’s executioner caught up.
His sword
Thud of cut flesh and bone.
Like a yellow sun drenched in blood
SI-YA-U’s head
rolled at her feet…


A Chinese bamboo frame.
In the frame is a painting.
Under the painting, a name:
 “La Gioconda”…
In the frame is a painting:
the eyes of the painting are burning, burning. […]
the painting in the frame comes alive, alive.
And suddenly
the painting jumped out of the frame
as if from a window;
her feet hit the ground…
She walked ahead.
I: trailed behind.
From the blazing red Tibetan sun
to the China Sea
we went and came
we came and went
I saw
sneak out under the cover of darkness
through the gates of a city in enemy hands;
I saw her
in a skirmish of drawn bayonets
strangle a British officer;
I saw her
at the head of a blue stream swimming with stars
wash the lice from her dirty shirt…


Ah, my patient reader!
Now we find ourselves in the French
military court in Shanghai.

The defense attorney presents his case:

this masterpiece
that stands in your presence as the accused
is the most accomplished daughter of a great artist.
this masterpiece…
my mind is on fire…
this masterpiece-[…]
Gentlemen, uniformed gentlemen…”

Stop sputtering like a jammed machine gun!
read the verdict.”

The bailiff reads the verdict:

“The laws of France
have been violated in China
bye the above-named Gioconda, daughter of one Leonardo.
we sentence the accused
to death
by burning.
[…] tomorrow night at moonrise,
a Senegalese regiment[…]


Gioconda waits. […]
A voice:
“All right, the lighter.
Burn, Gioconda, burn…”[…]
The flames painted Gioconda red.
She laughed with a smile that came from her heart.
Gioconda burned laughing…

Art, Shmart, Masterpiece, Shmasterpiece, And So On,
And So Forth,
Immortality, Eternity –


Nazim Hikmet, 1929
Translated by Randy Blasing and
Mutllu Konuk, 1993

Si-Ya-U, Hsiao San (b. 1896), Chinese revolutionary and man of letters. Hikmet met him in Moscow in 1922 and believed he had been executed in the bloody 1927 crackdown on Shanghai radicals after returning to china via Paris in 1924, when the Mona Lisa did in fact disappear form the Louvre. The two friends were reunited in Vienna in 1951 and travelled to Peking together in 1952. Translated into Chinese, this poem was later burned – along with Hsiao’s works – in the Cultural Revolution.

Nazim Hikmet (1902-1963) Perhaps Turkey’s greatest modern poet, writing both narrative and lyric poetry, Hikmet was a political prisoner in Turkey for 18 years, spending his final 13 years in exile, primarily in Russia.