December 18, 2013

Turkish courts think a book called “The Exploits of the Young Don Juan” might be kind of sexy


If this man *hadn't* written a dirty book, then I'd be surprised.

If this man *hadn’t* written a dirty book, then I’d be surprised.

Where have we heard this before? Judgment on an obscenity trial was postponed yesterday in Turkey, which has seen a series of these trials over the past few years for books like William Burroughs’ The Soft Machine and Chuck Palahniuk’s Snuff.

This time, the book in question was The Exploits of the Young Don Juan, which was purportedly written by Guillaume Apollinaire and recounts the erotic adventures of a teenager with numerous ladies, including his aunt. The publishing house Sel and the translator of the book, Ismail Yerguz, were accused of corrupting public morality, and it wasn’t the first appearance in the dock for Sel and its publisher İrfan Sancı, nor is it the first time for this book (see this MobyLives blogpost and this one).

The obscenity charges against The Exploits of the Young Don Juan were dismissed in an earlier trial in 2009, but, as a Guardian article by Kaya Genç reports,

in 2013 Turkey’s supreme court overturned the verdict, concluding the novel lacked “any artistic or literary value”. Instead, it was alleged to be filled with “vulgar, ordinary phrases, which intend to provoke sexual desires by way of representing deviant, lesbian, unnatural, even animal-related sexual relationships through the use of children, and with a coarse language” and have “no plot whatsoever”.

In a move that perhaps didn’t come as a complete surprise, a group of French literary organizations objected to the trial, saying that the book represents beautiful acts of natural love between independent sexual beings… well, no, actually: the French Publishers Association, the French Translators Association, and the Society of the Men of Letters of France (Sociéte des gens de lettres de France) composed an open letter to the Turkish Publishers Association, saying

All over the world, Apollinaire books are used to teach in schools. His books are a universal literature heritage… Any decision against publishing his books will contradict democratic principles and breach international human rights agreements that Turkey is a part of.

On Tuesday, the sentencing for Sancı and Yerguz was postponed for three years, provided they do “not commit the same offense again”; the two were facing 6 to 10 years in jail. Sanci made it quite clear that he didn’t consider necessarily consider this a positive result. From an article in Hürriyet:

“The imprisonment decision has just been frozen for now. I would like to highlight that I had already been acquitted in this case. I’m not happy with this decision of the court, which was trying to find a middle course because it didn’t want any more reactions,” he said.

Sancı also added that he would “not hold back” despite the ruling. “As a publisher, I’ll continue to commit this crime.”

This is virtually an exact repeat of the last round of trials in 2012, when Sel’s edition of the Burroughs title was under discussion. As Sara Whyatt, Deputy Director of PEN International, reported on the PEN blog at the time, the Turkish Supreme Court judge announced that, because of new laws, he would postpone judgment on the case for three years, and, as in the most recent ruling, if Sancı published any similar work in that period, it’d be added to the existing charges.

The intent seems to be to keep publishers in a state of fear and uncertainty, and to encourage self-censorship, though it’s clearly having the opposite effect in Sancı’s case.

However, underlying this series of stalling tactics is the fundamental justification for cases of this sort, which has yet to be seriously challenged. Because, yes, The Exploits of the Young Don Juan does sound like it contains some pretty racy material, and yes, that material may involve minors and incest and maybe even animals (the most recent English translation appears to be a 1986 edition from Atlanta-based Nexus Press, which closed in 2003).

But obscenity trials — like those that Grove Press underwent to defend Naked Lunch, Tropic of Cancer, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960s — should in the end raise the question of what obscenity is and whether reading material that some deem obscene actually has any kind of negative effects on whichever population the court aims to protect. And ultimately, of course, whether even if it does have negative effects, whether sacrificing a population’s freedom to read any and all books is worth it. These are big, old, creaky questions that have to be addressed, and they are not, for the most part, being raised in these Turkish trials.


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.