I read this book of 19 essays by the prominent Turkish author, essayist and journalist, in one sitting. All the essays were smuggled out of his 9 x 4 metre cell, shared with two others in the Silivri prison about 200km from Istanbul.
I could not put it down, as I was drawn inside the mind and imagination of a 68 year old man who was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole in 2016, following the attempted coup against the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
I have never read such profound, sometimes humorous, deeply moving writing. Ahmet Altan’s ability to engage and connect with the reader from his prison cell is astonishing.
The translation from Turkish by his friend and fellow journalist Yasemin Çongar is itself a major achievement, capturing as it does the very essence of Altan’s writing.
He covers themes such as the concept of time in one riveting essay. In another he guides the reader on a journey around his cell. Elsewhere he examines the notion of evil after a visit and chilling encounter with a radiologist, handcuffed, to a hospital bed for an X-ray.
What emerges throughout these remarkable essays is Altan’s extraordinary love of writing. In his essay “The Wood Sprites” he allows his imagination to soar as he portrays his lifelong love for books since early childhood.
One cannot fail to be moved, especially given the circumstances of what could be a terminal imprisonment. We are allowed to witness his fear, the loss of family, but such insights are mitigated by Altan’s resilience, his refusal to be cowed by the brutal regime that has incarcerated him, his younger brother Mehmet an eminent academic, and the thousands and thousands of others who now share his fate.
Altan’s recourse to his beloved words is his path to freedom. It is in those periods of time when he sits on a plastic chair at a 1 x 1 metre plastic table in a small cell shared with two others in a prison holding 11,000 people that he revels in his imagination. There is no distraction while he captures the ideas he brings handwritten, to the page.
He is magnificent in his courage, a subject he also alights upon. This is really the greatest writing which will inspire the most cynical reader.
I leave the last word to Altan from his essay “The Writer’s Paradox”, where he explores the notion of freedom and describes with sublime eloquence how he cannot he imprisoned.
“I am a writer/ I am neither where I am or 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.”