Book Review - Like A Sword Wound

Ahmet Altan, an award-winning Turkish novelist and journalist, is serving a life sentence on spurious charges following the attempted coup of 2016. He has written about the absurd and petty restrictions of the Ottoman empire and finds himself the victim of the absurd and petty repression of Turkey’s current government. He commented from prison: “I am living what I wrote in a novel.” He is referring to Like a Sword Wound, first published in 1997 and now published in English. This is the first volume in a quartet encompassing the decline of the Ottoman empire at the end of the 19th century and the rise of Kemal Atatürk in the 1920s.

It is a brilliant critique of an authoritarian regime on the verge of collapse. I was teaching English in Istanbul in 1993 (having worked as director of English PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee before and afterwards). Political suppression was widespread, the economy was shot and state suspicion was rife. Although Altan was writing about the late Ottoman period, the parallels with 1990s Turkey are clear. The ultra-nationalism, paranoia, human rights violations and censorship of that period could be compared to president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government today. As Altan has observed: “this country’s politicians’ desire to become the ‘sultan’ never ceases.”

Ghosts from the past haunt Osman as he wiles away the hours in a dilapidated house in modern-day Turkey. His great grandfather, Sheikh Yusuf Efendi, leader of a renowned tekke, is about to marry Mehpare Hanım, the beautiful 17-year-old daughter of an Ottoman customs director. After she gives birth to Rukiye, the marriage flounders and Mehpare remarries Hüseyin Hikmet Bey, the cosmopolitan son of the Sultan’s physician. From a rich tapestry of characters, Osman’s ancestors jostle with one another to gain his attention and give their accounts of personal and political struggle.

Ragıp Bey, Osman’s grandfather, an officer in the Ottoman army, is sent to Germany and then Salonika. He joins the Committee of Union and Progress and witnesses the drive for self-rule in Bulgaria rock the empire. Sultan Abdulhamid II trusts no one. Intelligence networks are everywhere, dissident books and newspapers banned and those with power fear being denounced: “Whoever did not write denunciations had to be doing something that should be denounced.” The regime is on the point of collapse – all it took was “the least planned assassination in history”. Like a Sword Wound closes with the Young Turk revolution of 1908. Running alongside the political intrigues is Hikmet’s love for his beguiling and lustful wife, Mehpare, a woman he can never fully possess. He records in his diary: “True love is like a sword wound, and even when the wound heals a deep scar remains.” Given Altan’s multi-layered, lyrical prose, this might just as well imply his love for a dissolute country, or the “scar” could refer to the tyranny of liberated, sexually assured women, who continue to be treated with suspicion.

Altan was arrested in September 2016, under Erdoğan’s state of emergency. Together with his brother Mehmet and journalist Nazlı Ilıcak, he was convicted for his alleged involvement in the July unrest. The day before the coup, they had appeared on a TV channel that was linked to Fethullah Gülen (the cleric Erdoğan blamed for trying to stage the coup), discussing the forthcoming elections and the possibility that Erdoğan might be voted out. Prosecutors said that they had sent “subliminal messages” to the coup plotters during the TV show and in their articles.

After this charge was widely ridiculed, the prosecution alleged that they had used rhetoric “evocative of a coup”. At Altan’s appeal hearing on 2 October 2018 the judge upheld the original sentence. His outrageous detention makes the reading of his vibrant, engrossing novel, lucidly translated by Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi, all the more urgent as an act of solidarity. Altan is writing the fourth volume from his prison cell.

Originally published in The Observer