Stark, compact essays about a writer’s imprisonment in an increasingly authoritarian Turkey.
In early 2018, Altan (Like a Sword Wound, 2018, etc.), an acclaimed novelist and essayist, was sentenced to life in prison for treason based on televised comments regarding a failed 2016 coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. As Philippe Sands recalls in his foreword, “[Altan] spoke with passion and courage, intelligence and humor on the writer’s place in a decent society.” This recollection aptly reflects this slim compendium of essays, produced by Altan while imprisoned. He sketches the arc of his descent into a demeaning carceral nightmare, beginning with charges of broadcasting “subliminal messages” in support of the coup. Later, this was changed to “putschism,” for which he was convicted; one judge cynically told him, “our prosecutors like using words the meanings of which they don’t know.” Altan was jailed alongside many intellectuals and military officers, and the first essays reflect their initial responses to incarceration. “In a matter of hours,” he writes, “I had travelled across five centuries to arrive at the dungeons of the Inquisition.” The author acknowledges the harrowing nature of his ordeal, and he positions himself in the tradition of imprisoned writers who respond to their plight by acknowledging its surreal qualities. “I had seen the monstrous face of reality,” he writes. “From now on I would live like a man clinging to a single branch.” While horrified by his eventual life sentence, he became determined to use the writer’s tools and identity to fight both inner despair and his government’s persecution: “I must confess that even from within a dark cell, the idea of fighting filled me with such exuberance that I was saying ‘To the end,’ with excitement.” This spirit infuses the book and lends rhythmic urgency to Altan’s voice as he reflects on the intensity of life in a cell, the plights of fellow prisoners, and how to recall loved ones without succumbing to despair.
An inspiring account of the writing life and a chilling glimpse of authoritarianism’s slippery slope.