Turkish title Dünyayi bir Daha Görmeyeceğim
Translated by Yasemin Çongar
With a Foreword by Philippe Sands
Turkish writer Ahmet Altan was arrested in 2016, in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He was accused of treason following a brief appearance on television following the coup, and imprisoned. His subsequent short memoir, detailing his time in prison, has echoes of Burhan Sönmez’s ‘Istanbul Istanbul’ (which I reviewed earlier this month), in its depictions of both the brutal reality of Altan’s desperate situation and the way he is able to escape, to some degree, into a reality-adjacent realm:
“Viewed from outside, I was one old, white-bearded Ahmet Husrev Altan lying down in an airless, lightless iron cage.
But this was only the reality of those who locked me up. For myself, I had changed it.
I was the lieutenant happily eating cherries with a gun pointing at his heart. I was Borges telling the mugger to take his life. I was Caesar building walls around Alesia.”
In fact, I would have assumed that Borhan Sönmez had read this work first, and used is as an influence for his novel, were it not for the fact that Altan’s book was published later than the novel, in 2019. Of course, Sönmez has experienced imprisonment as a political prisoner too, so perhaps it is simply that his novel was very successful at recreating an experience that is, unfortunately, widely known among the Turkish literati.
However, I found the writing in this memoir more haunting than the novel (and at the same time very simply expressed), more moving and more evocative. I was driven to keep turning the pages as Altan communicates his reflections and experiences, however disturbing they might sometimes be.
There is a passage where Altan is pacing his cell, waiting for the verdict following a very dubious trial, at which the judges were visibly and audibly disengaged. Horrorstruck, he recalls that at a happily oblivious, earlier time he wrote a novel featuring a character in prison, nervously awaiting the result of his trial:
“Years ago, as I was wandering in that unmarked, enigmatic and hazy territory where literature touches life I had met my own destiny but failed to recognize it; I wrote thinking it belonged to someone else.”
He is sentenced to life imprisonment, without parole, after being found guilty of being, variously, a ‘religious putschist’ and a ‘Marxist terrorist’, and much of the memoir is written under the belief that he will die in prison.
Unexpectedly, there are some moments of levity or at least a sort of absurdist humour, such as when, locked-up with two devout Muslims (Altan is a non-believer), they are forced to come to some sort of accommodation of each other’s beliefs.
“The middle one was easily offended in matters of religion. Although I knew this, I sometimes couldn’t stop myself from teasing him like a teenager.
Then he would be cross and stop talking to me for precisely three days.
Because Prophet Muhammad said, ‘It is not permissible for a man to forsake his Muslim brother for more than three days…’ he would make peace at the end of the third day.”
However, when this pious man’s daughter, barely out of her teens, is imprisoned for four months, Ahmet prays with him to thank God for her release, in what is a really beautiful brief episode.
In a translator’s note we are told that Yasemin Çongar received the book in dribs and drabs from prison, on handwritten sheets, over a period of several months between November 2017 and May 2018. The resulting memoir was longlisted for the 2019 Baillie Gifford Prize (effectively the Booker prize for non-fiction).
I don’t know that it would be appropriate to say I ‘enjoyed’ this book, but I was certainly absolutely gripped by what is a smoothly translated, compelling and often gorgeously written piece of life writing. And I was delighted to learn that Altan was finally released from prison in April 2021, albeit after years of incarceration.