Book Review - I Will Never See the World Again by Ahmet Altan and Dawn by Selahattin Demirtaş

Two writers, languishing in Turkish prisons, have written books from their cells. Ahmet Altan is well known in literary circles as an advocate for Kurdish and Armenian minorities and as a strong voice of dissent in his country. He is currently serving a life sentence on spurious charges following the attempted coup of 2016 – a conviction that has received worldwide condemnation. Altan’s essays are pithy meditations on freedom, literature, love and culture. They begin with his arrest, aged sixty-eight, and pre-trial detention, followed by the life sentence without parole cursorily dispensed by a judge with “swollen half-closed eyelids, his eyes…nothing but a dead wetness.”

Altan’s essays were composed in Silivri prison between November 2017 and May 2018 and sent to his friend Yasemin Çongar, who translated them into English. In ‘The Novelist Who Wrote His Own Destiny’ Altan observes: “I live now what I wrote in my novel.” He is referring to a passage in Like a Sword Wound, (the first novel of his Ottoman Quartet, published in English last year) describing the turmoil of a character waiting to be sentenced. When Altan records his fate, his despair is palpable: “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.” Altan’s response is reminiscent of someone coping with bereavement; a mindset close to the edge.

Everything in Altan’s world is minutely observed and retains the utmost significance. In ‘Encounter with Time’, Altan captures the frustration of a man with a lively imagination whose freedom, has been abruptly curtailed. “A prisoner counts everything. Except time. A prisoner discovers time.”  His watch confiscated, time has become for him “a single entity: a gargantuan reptile”. And so he invents a new type of time-keeping – a clock made up of tiny bits of torn paper that he adds to each time he has paced 180 steps around his cell.
In “Handcuffs” Altan relates a chilling anecdote about the banal face of cruelty, in the form of an x-ray technician,

“a petite young woman wearing a headscarf, loose clothes and no make-up…She knew the handcuffs were hurting my wrists and making it difficult for me to move, yet with a voice like ice she stopped their removal.
There was no anger, no irritation, no sign of enmity on her face.
Neither was there compassion, grace or mercy.
Her face was dispassionate, as empty as a frame.
She had eyes, eyebrows, a mouth, a nose and a chin but no expression.”

‘Wood Sprites’ refers to his childhood love of literature. After months without books, Altan celebrates the simple pleasure of being allowed to read a novel. It is Cossacks by Tolstoy, not one of his best, apparently, but Altan happily recalls a review by Virginia Woolf printed in the TLS  (and reprinted on October 7, 2016), and ruminates on the Russian’s genius; and ruminates on the Russian’s genius; “Tolstoy could capture and hold life in the palm of his hand as easily as a farmboy catches a ladybird.” 

Short stories 
Translated by Amy Marie Spangler and Kate Ferguson

Another critical voice, Selahattin Demirtaş, a Kurdish politician and human rights lawyer, is detained in Edirne F-Type High-Security Prison. Demirtaş was arrested on 4 November 2016 accused of spreading propaganda against the Turkish state. In September 2018 he was sentenced to four years and eight months for a speech he had made in 2013. He reportedly faces a further 142 years in prison. The New York Times has compared Demirtaş’s rhetorical skill to that of to President Obama. His fictional debut, Dawn, may lack the finesse of Altan’s work but Demirtaş writes poignantly about the lives of ordinary people and his stories are memorable for the unvarnished simplicity of his prose.

In his preface, which he describes as “a letter written to you from prison,” he observes: “Literature – the art form that arguably comprises the backbone of any culture – not only remains at the vanguard of critical thinking but serves as a catalyst for the thoughts and feelings that in turn create political change.”  Demirtaş has dedicated his collection to “all women who have been murdered or victims of violence”. His titular story is about the ‘honour killing’ of Seher (which means Dawn). After she is raped by three men who “robbed Seher of her dreams,” she is sentenced by three members of her family who “robbed Seher of her life.” In ‘A Letter to the Prison Letter-Reading Committee’ Demirtaş highlights the absurdity of his detention. His narrator writes a letter to the committee which becomes a story that they will have to read and censor. In ‘A Magnificent Ending’, Demirtaş imagines a new political dawn; a world where his beloved People’s Democratic Party are in power, their goals attained and celebrated.

The fact that both men continue to write, despite their confinement, is some measure of their courage and the indomitability of the human spirit. By reading their works we offer them a lifeline to the outside world, in defiance of those who would silence them. Should they learn that their books are featured in this week’s TLS, I hope it will serve as a reminder that they continue to be heard and are not forgotten. 

Originally published in the TLS