~ I Will Never See the World Again by Ahmet Altan ~
As readers we’re tempted to uncritically applaud almost any book smuggled out of prison, and political imprisonment is especially likely to lend the author a halo. Likewise, I suppose, the prison writer may be tempted to imagine his work is more important or profound than it really is. Ahmet Altan acknowledges the risks: “Add the sentence ‘I write these words from a prison cell’ to any narrative and you will add tension and vitality,” he writes, “and an ill-concealed call for mercy.”
I came to this book with little knowledge of Altan, who is a novelist of some notoriety in his native Turkey. From what I gather, he was imprisoned on charges of sending “subliminal messages” in support of an attempted coup against the Erdogan government during a television interview. It’s ridiculous that such an accusation should earn a man a life sentence, but it did. The full story is surely more complex. Political prisonerhood appears to be a tradition in Altan’s family (his father, his brother), and a little digging shows that he’s worn his politics on his sleeve for decades as a journalist and public figure.
This in no way justifies Altan’s imprisonment, but I wonder why some authors are so easily tempted by partisanship. Even when I sympathize with the views expressed, I pull a sour face. We see this kind of imposture too often. Actors and musicians who are used to being applauded for their talents generalize the praise they receive and come to believe that their opinions on all kinds of subjects – and especially on politics – are enlightened and important. Celebrity opinions may be influential, but in nine cases out of ten they ought not to be.
There’s little of an explicitly political nature in I Will Never See the World Again. There are corrupt judges, a general sense of Kafkaesque absurdity in the proceedings, complaints about the conditions of confinement. Altan is more interested in the personalities of his cell mates, relations between the jailers and the jailed, and especially in his own subjective experience of imprisonment: the nature of longing, the seductions of dreams, and how the sense of time is stretched and flattened and rendered meaningless in such an environment.
Some people, uncaged, imagine themselves in prison. Others, imprisoned, imagine themselves free, and manage to live a life of the mind in fresh air under a warming sun, without walls. That vision of Stoic liberty is attractive to Altan. He pursues it explicitly in some of the pieces collected here. He revisits in memory the people and places and books he has loved. When that fails him, he writes like a medium channeling Seneca: “I clung firmly to my own death. It calmed me… The eternity of death has a power to trivialize even the most terrifying moments of life.”
Less interesting to me, and less satisfying, is the way Altan makes a fetish of his vocation as a writer, as if it granted him superhero powers. Maybe he’s putting on a brave face, but it feels affected and false. In the triumphal but unconvincing final chapter, he writes in a grating series of one-line paragraphs:
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.
But he can’t, not really. Freedom of the mind, to whatever degree it exists or is exercised, is not the prerogative of “writers” only but something which nature, or God, puts in reach of all. And yet this book demonstrates, if nothing else, that Altan is personally unable, physically or intellectually, to walk through walls. The fact of his confinement shapes everything about I Will Never See the World Again.
Ahmet Altan was unexpectedly released from prison in November 2019, not long after publication of this volume. He was taken back to prison a week later. His trials and imprisonments seem a preposterous charade. But his book doesn’t, in my opinion, fully justify the fantastic accolades it has received. A writer submits his work to the judgment of readers and we do best to render him neither less nor more than justice. It’s easy to forget that shackles do not make a saint, and a prison cell lends the writer no special genius. If we grant an author allowances because he is writing from prison, then we have read politically rather than critically.