Last February, Turkish journalist and novelist Ahmet Altan and five co-defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment for their alleged involvement in a 2016 coup attempt. Although Turkey’s supreme court had ruled that “no one could be arrested based on such evidence,” prosecutors insisted that the defendants had sent “subliminal messages” urging the overthrow of the government via television appearance and newspaper columns, and a panel of three judges agreed. An international outcry greeted this blatant violation of human rights and freedom of the press, including protests from PEN and Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk.
Publisher Sandro Ferri, cofounder of Edizioni E/O in Italy and the English-language Europa Editions (based in New York and London) signed a deal with the jailed author to publish in Italian and English (translated from their original Turkish) Altan’s series of historical novels known as the Ottoman Quartet. (Ferri will also sell translation rights in other languages.) The first volume, Like a Sword Wound, will be released by Europa in October; Love in the Days of Rebellion will follow in fall 2019. The third novel, Dying is Easier than Loving, is not yet scheduled, and Altan is working on the untitled final volume in Silivri Prison outside Istanbul. The writer responded from there to my questions with a wide-ranging commentary on his work, his life, and his future.
“I have never met Sandro Ferri, but he has shown me great friendship for this entire period,” Altan says. “He has always been supportive, and not only by publishing my novels.” (Endgame, Altan’s English-language debut, was released by Europa in 2017.) “While my defense statements have been translated into several languages, they were published as a book only in Italy.”
Although he is better known in the West as a crusading journalist, in his native land Altan has been a bestselling novelist and essayist since the 1980s. Endgame, published in Turkish in 2013, marked his return to fiction after a reluctant five-year hiatus. “When you live in a country like Turkey, you occasionally find yourself having to choose between writing novels and joining those who seek a solution that will end the suffering of the people,” he explains. “It is not very easy to turn your back to people’s suffering; that’s why you are obliged to do journalism sometimes. I am the happiest when I am writing novels. If it were possible, I would write novels non-stop.”
The Ottoman Quartet, launched in 1998 with the publication of Like a Sword Wound, was always intended to be a longterm project. “I planned this as a tetralogy to show the cultural diversification and inner conflicts within a family as the years passed, while at the same time telling the story of the step-by-step collapse of an empire. Such novels take time to write, because one needs to do serious historical research.”
Like a Sword Wound follows an intricately connected group of people through decades to the Young Turk Revolution of 1908. The period details are abundant and accurate; several characters are based on members of Altan’s family, and turn-of-the-century Istanbul, both beautiful and corrupt, comes vividly to life. Yet the novel is not entirely different from the more overtly experimental Endgame. Readers follow the events in Like a Sword Wound via Osman, a recluse in contemporary Istanbul whose dead ancestors visit to tell the stories of their lives.
“I think we can call this type of narrative ‘neo-classical,’” Altan muses. “Here the classical narrative, with people and their emotions at its center, is enriched by the more flexible and playful narrative techniques of modernism. It basically means telling the story of a person and his destiny by using all the devices that are available to literature.”
“I don’t care about what is fashionable in literature,” he continues. “For me, the main subject matter of literature is people and their lives. The biggest challenge for a writer is to be able to describe in a profound way a man or a woman and his or her conflicted emotions: their strength, their despair, their struggles within that despair. The classics greatly succeeded in that. The majority of the modernists and post-modernists quailed under this challenge; they chose a literary path that is more astute, more playful, yet shallower. They chose to act as if everything about human beings have already been told and there was nothing else to write about. This literary approach doesn’t interest me. I like writing about people’s emotions, it gives me pleasure to do that. I don’t want to find an untaken path, I want to write better than anyone else on a path that everyone knows.”
Although Like a Sword Wound closes with the triumph of the Young Turks in 1908, ominous signs of trouble to come are evident in the revolutionaries’ refusal to acknowledge any common bond with ethnic minorities also fighting for freedom within the Ottoman Empire; these military men regard them as traitors. “Power is poisonous everywhere,” Altan comments. “But in countries like Turkey, society is unable to produce an antidote to the poison of power. Here what happened a century ago repeats itself. Everyone who comes to power with the promise of fighting tyranny and repression turns into a tyrant in time. This country’s politicians’ desire to become the ‘sultan’ never ceases.”
The writer refuses to be intimidated by would-be sultans. His website unabashedly states that the final volume of the Ottoman Quartet is set in 1915 and “tells the tales of the Battle of Gallipoli and the Armenian Genocide.” Altan is already well-known for his public statements about the genocide, a subject so taboo in Turkey that anyone who mentions it risks jail for “insulting Turkishness.” I wonder why he felt the need to address it in fiction. “I think the best narration of the dark and bloody face of history is found in literature,” he replies. “Literature doesn’t only give us the historical truth, it also enables us to form emotional linkage to what happened in history, it enables us to carry inside the marks of the events of the past. The mental tremor one feels while reading the feelings of a woman watching her child being killed is more profound than one’s reaction to the factual statement that ‘one million people were killed.’ The former helps you much better appreciate the truth of it all.”
He has shared his feelings about being in jail in a collection of essays, I Will Never See the World Again, that will be published across Europe in fall 2018; Granta will release the English-language edition in March 2019. Does the collection’s bleak title reflect his assessment of his prospects? “You cannot foresee what might happen in a place where the law doesn’t exist,” he answers. “I may be released from prison, but I may also die here. Where a person spends his time is important, but how he spends it is also important. I spend my time in a prison, but I spend it dreaming, thinking, and writing. I am working, and I can make my voice heard around the world. Because of this, the question when I might be released from the prison becomes less urgent.”