Much of the prison literature I have read expresses a legitimate bitterness about the political forces that led to the inmate’s incarceration. I can’t imagine writing without such anger if I were the one imprisoned. I wouldn’t have such control over my emotions, such tranquility in the face of the horrible environments that exist in virtually all prisons in the world, except in the Scandinavian countries that are almost always more enlightened than we are in the United States. Nor would I be able to stop cursing the head off at the government that has incarcerated me. But these characteristics are largely missing from Turkish writer’s Ahmet Altan’s I Will Never See the World Again.
I’d be angry as hell at Recep Tayyip Erdogen, Turkey’s President, because I’ve seen what his goons have done in Washington, D.C., where I live, brutally beating up and injuring protesters on American soil. If he can get by with that in the USA, who knows what he has done in Turkey. We do know that he has incarcerated thousands of people he claims were involved in the attempted coup against him in 2016. Thousands. And we know that Turkey currently has imprisoned—under Erdogen’s orders—more journalists than any other country. Novelist and essayist Ahmet Altan falls into the latter category.
I Will Never See the World Again is not a typical prison narrative, also, because Altan is still incarcerated and his memoir was smuggled out of prison in little bits of paper, a few pages at a time, presumably by his lawyers—without the writer’s ability to produce a sustained narrative and edit it himself. Hence, this is a series of vignettes, beginning with him being picked up at his home, at 5:42 in the morning, and taken away by the state security department. He tells us of a deep irony: “Exactly forty-five years ago, on a morning like this one, they had raided our house and arrested my father.” The next paragraph sets the tone of his narrative: “My father asked the police if they would like some coffee. When they declined, he laughed and said, ‘It is not a bribe, you can drink some.’” And then, “Forty-five years had passed and time had returned to the same morning. During the space of that morning which lasted forty-five years, my father had died and I had grown old, but the dawn and the rain were unchanged.”
Everything, of course, was changed for the younger man: “From now on, others would decide what I did, where I stood, where I slept, what time I got up, what my name was.” In the first twelve days in jail, he lost seven kilos; the food was that awful. His brother was also imprisoned, but he didn’t see him. Since there were no mirrors anywhere, he began to believe that his life had been erased. But then—after after being transferred from jail to a prison outside of Istanbul—his mental state began to change. He says he began to realize that he was alive, but life was dead. What he had to do was use his imagination just as he had during the years he was a journalist and wrote and published more than dozen novels and collections of essays.
First, he invented a clock based on light and shadows so that he could tell day from night. As a non-believer, he began to find some sanity by arguing about religion with the other two inmates in his cell. More worrisome was the fact that his situation began to replicate the story in one of his novels, as he realized, “I am a novelist living his novel…. I am the oracle, the omen and the victim.”
The greatest shock comes shortly: “Life without parole,” rendered in a courtroom with three judges. “I am being convicted just like the hero in my novel. I wrote my own future…. 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. I walk into the darkness like a god who wrote his own destiny. My hero and I disappear into the darkness together.”
Yet—and this is what I find truly remarkable about I Will Never See the World Again—Altan refutes his earlier statement: “Others may have the power to imprison me, but no one has the power to keep me in prison.”
He is who he is always been.
“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 here.
“Because, like all writers. I have magic. I can pass through your walls with ease.”
Altan makes my own despair look petty.
I Will Never See the World Again.
Other Press. 224 pp., $15.99.
Translated by Yasemin Congar.