September 19, 2017
Turkish novelist Ahmet Altan, held incommunicado on charges of “giving subliminal messages in favor of a coup on television,” manages to publish an essay on the eve of his trial
by Ian Dreiblatt
Over the past few years, we’ve had all too much occasion to write about Turkey’s ongoing crackdown against journalists, publishers, and writers of all kinds, which has spiked in intensity since 2016’s failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Today, the state is beginning its trial of journalist and author Ahmet Altan, on charges that, according to English PEN, include “giving subliminal messages in favour of a coup on television.” A recent group letter whose signatories included John Ashbery, Margaret Atwood, Elena Ferrante, and Hari Kunzru called him “one of Turkey’s most important writers, whose novels appear in translation and sell in the millions. He was also editor-in-chief for five years of the liberal daily newspaper Taraf. The paper championed the public’s right to know.”
Altan, no stranger to trouble, may have seen some of this coming. In 1985, when censors wanted to black out portions of his novel Sudaki İz (“Trace on the Water”), Altan included the official government censorship report—which contained all of the language that had been removed—as an appendix to the book. In 1995, he was fired from a job at the prestigious news daily Milliyet after writing an article that imagined how Turkish history might have played out had the roles of the nation’s two largest ethnicities—the dominant Turks and the comparatively disempowered Kurds—been switched — imagining a country called Kurdey founded by a leader named Mustafa Kemal Atakurd.
But despite his confinement, Altan has somehow (and unexplainedly) managed to write a short essay about his situation and get it to the Society of Authors, who published it online yesterday. The essay, “The Writer’s Paradox,” is a sweet and not unsentimental reflection on the freedom of imagination that Altan retains in prison. In the translation of Yasemin Çongar, it begins:
A moving object is neither where it is nor where it is not,’ implies Zeno in his famous paradox. Ever since my youth I have believed this paradox is better suited to literature or, indeed, to writers, rather than to physics.
I am writing these words from a prison cell.
He goes on to confirm that he is “being held in a high security prison in the middle of the wilds,” where he is given meals “through a hole in the middle of the door.”
“Yes,” he writes, “I am not allowed to see anyone other than my lawyers and my children.
“Yes, I am forbidden from sending even a two-line letter to my loved ones.”
Altan goes on:
All of this is true but this is not the whole truth.
In summer mornings when the first rays of the sun come through the naked window bars and stab my pillow like shining spears, I hear the playful songs of the birds of passage that have nested under the courtyard eaves, and the strange crackles that the prisoners pacing the other courtyards make as they crush empty water bottles under their feet.
I live with the feeling that I still reside in that pavilion with a garden where I spent my childhood or, for whatever reason and I really don’t know the reason for this, at one of those hotels on the chirpy French streets of the film Irma la Douce.
Being a writer, Altan explains, frees him from his confinement, enables him to “travel the world with the wings of my endless mind.”
The de profundis ends:
I am writing this in a prison cell.
But I am not in prison.
I am a writer.
I am neither where I am nor where I am not.
You can imprison me but you cannot keep me in prison.
Because, like all writers, I have magic. I can pass through walls with ease.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.