To review certain books seems like an impertinence. This is one of them. It speaks for itself with such clarity, certainty and wisdom that only one thing needs to be said: read it. And then read it again. It is a short book, divided into brief chapters, some no longer than two pages, each recounting some incident from the author’s prison experience. It is wonderfully distilled, but not sententious; even in extremis, Ahmet Altan never loses the limpidity and translucence, vivid with the vividness of dreams, which is characteristic of his other writing – as far as one can judge from the only other books of his available in English translation, Like a Sword Wound, the superb first volume of his Ottoman Quartet; and Endgame, a phantasmagorical crime story. Even the latter has, at the heart of all the violence, a dreamy, wide-eyed quality that seems to be quintessential Altan. To judge by I Will Never See the World Again, it has been and will be his salvation.
Altan’s arrest was no surprise to him. He was in the frontline. As the author of Atakurd, a much-read piece in Milliyet newspaper arguing for equal status for Kurds, he had, as early as 1995, received a suspended 20-month sentence, and been fined $12,000. In 2007, he founded and edited the satirical newspaper Tara, in which, a year later, he wrote a piece called Oh My Brother. For this, he was charged under the draconian Article 301 of the Turkish penal code that criminalises “denigrating Turkishness”, though not, at that time, imprisoned. Knowing how exposed his position was, he habitually carried a gun.
Like Father, Like Son
Dissidence is the Altan family business: Ahmet’s father Çetin, a polemical journalist, novelist, editor and MP, had been apprehended nearly half a century before by an earlier repressive regime. When the police came to get him, Altan senior offered them tea; they refused it. “It’s not a bribe,” he remarked, pleasantly. “You can drink some.” The joke didn’t go down very well. Four and a half decades later, Ahmet repeated it to the policemen who came for him; they were equally unamused. To be making jokes at all in the circumstances reveals an almost inconceivable sangfroid. He knew that there was no chance whatever of a fair trial; the sentence was a foregone conclusion.
Never again would I be able to kiss the woman I love, embrace my kids, meet with my friends, walk the streets … I would not be able to eat eggs with sausage or drink a glass of wine or go to a restaurant and order fish. I would not be able to watch the sunrise.
In the car that took him to prison, the guard offered him a cigarette. “I only smoke when I am nervous,” replied Altan. He had, he said, no idea where the words came from. But they changed his life. “There are certain actions and words that are demanded by the events, the dangers and the realities that surround you. Once you refuse to play this assigned role, instead doing and saying the unexpected, reality itself is taken aback; it hits against the rebellious jetties of your mind and breaks into pieces.” This insight – “Reality could not conquer me. I conquered reality” – gave him the strength to face what followed. He saw that this capacity was an extension of his trade as a novelist: creating an alternative reality. I Will Never See the World Again is as much about writing as it is about prison, but above all it is about freedom, a freedom epitomised by the exercise of the imagination.
To be making jokes at all in the circumstances reveals an almost inconceivable sangfroid.
His liberty and independence of thought were not effortlessly maintained: whatever your inner fortitude, prison, by its very nature, is crippling. “In a matter of 5 hours I had travelled across five centuries to arrive at the dungeons of the Inquisition.” The sensory deprivation was immediately disorienting: like Oscar Wilde, he discovered that time ceases to mean anything. “The air and the light in our cage never changed. Each minute was the same as the last. It was as if a tributary of the river of time had hit a dam and formed a lake. We sat at the bottom of that motionless pool.”
Taken to court, the disorientation continued. The judges were out of Kafka, but as in Kafka, not savage or brutal, but erratic, bewildering, surreal. He found that he had been arrested not, as originally stated, for sending “subliminal messages” in support of the attempted coup, but for having participated in it. Challenged as to the change of charge, the judge remarked, airily: “Our prosecutors like using words the meanings of which they don’t know.”
He was released and returned home; later that evening, a new warrant is issued and he is back in prison, put into a cell marked Ladies’ Infirmary. He launches an appeal, based on the Supreme Court’s rejection of his conviction: as he waits for the verdict, he tries to dismiss “the pale flickering dreams fed by hope” that “stir shyly in the shadowy folds of my mind”. He begins to realise as he waits that he is living out the very scene that he wrote years earlier in his novel Like a Sword Wound, where a character also waits for a verdict. “Years ago as I was wandering in that unmarked, enigmatic and hazy territory where literature meets life, I had met my own destiny but failed to recognise it; I wrote thinking it belonged to someone else. I feel I am being dragged into a vertiginous, wuthering vortex in which novel and life are entangled, where what is real and what is written imitate one another and change places, each disguised as the other.”
The verdict is handed down: life, without parole.
I will never see the world again; I will never see a sky unframed by the walls of a courtyard. I am descending to Hades. I walk into the darkness like a god who writes his own destiny. My hero and I disappear into the darkness together.
But in time, his imagination saves him:
Like Odysseus, I will act with heroism and cowardice, with honesty and craftiness. I will know defeat and victory, my adventure will end only in death … a ship stands in the middle of the cell; its timbers are creaking. On its deck is a conflicted Odysseus.
In a heart-stopping moment, he thinks to himself:
What a beautiful scene to describe. I reach for a pen with a hand that is white in the ghostly light. I can write even in the dark. I take the ship cracking in the storm in the palm of my hands and begin writing. The prison door shut behind me.
Put together from papers found among notes Altan gave to his lawyers, and translated – superbly – into English by his friend Yasemin Çongar, I Will Never See the World Again is deeply satisfying in form. It is not Midnight Express; it is not From the House of the Dead, and it is not De Profundis. In a sense, it eclipses all of these. It is a radiant celebration of the inner resources of human beings, above all those triggered by the imagination. Its account of the creative process is sublime, among the most perfectly expressed analyses of that perpetually elusive phenomenon. And it is a triumph of the spirit. “You can imprison me but you cannot keep me here. Because, like all writers, I have magic,” Altan says in his final phrases. “I can pass through your walls with ease.” Yes: but enough is enough. He is still in prison. Eighty Nobel prize-winners have protested, unsuccessfully. We must move heaven and earth to spring him.