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When Historical Fiction Is a Crime

Why is one of Turkey’s foremost novelists in jail?

Ahmet Altan, on being released from prison in November 2019. He was rearrested eight days later.

Ahmet Altan, one of Turkey’s most skillful historical novelists, lives in solitary confinement in a cell four meters long, at Silivri Prison, Europe’s largest penal facility. In Ill Never See This World Again, his fifteenth book, and the first he wrote from prison, Altan recalled the passing comment of a judge who held the author’s fate in his hands: “If only you had stuck to writing novels and kept your nose out of political affairs.”

Love in the Days of Rebellion
by Ahmet Altan, translated by Yelda Türedi and Brendan Freely
Europa Editions, 496 pp., $19.00
Like a Sword Wound
by Ahmet Altan, translated by Yelda Türedi and Brendan Freely
Europa Editions, 352 pp., $17.00

Altan’s punishment for that sin—he was charged with “sending subliminal messages” to topple Turkey’s strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—has been severe. “I will never see a sky unframed by the walls of a courtyard,” he realized upon receiving an aggravated life sentence in 2018. But politics has been an abiding theme of his work since the mid-1970s, when he cut his teeth as a young reporter. For much of his career, eroticism and the intrigues of Turkish politics had vitalized Altan’s writings and helped make him a household name. In 1982, aged 32, his debut novel launched a career marked by controversy and bestsellers: His second novel, Trace on the Water (1985), was found “obscene” by a court, which ordered police to burn it; Cheating, Altan’s erotic novella from 2002, sold over half a million copies, including one purchased by the cop who initially arrested him and chatted about its plot as the police van carried the giant of Turkish literature to Silivri Prison.

It was the Ottoman Quartet, an epic novel spanning the turbulent era between 1873, the year Sultan Abdülhamid II was enthroned, and 1915, when 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians died in an act of genocide, that earned Altan the distinction of a leading Turkish historical novelist, alongside younger authors Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak. The Quartet is Altan’s life’s work (he hopes to complete its last volume once he regains access to a library) and proof that even while he “stuck to writing novels,” in his judge’s words, Altan couldn’t “keep his nose out of political affairs.” The saga’s first two volumes, Like a Sword Wound (1998) and Love in the Days of Rebellion (2001), now published in fine English translations by Yelda Türedi and Brendan Freely, probe Turkish historiography’s nationalist dichotomies between the autocratic Abdülhamid and progressive patriots who dethroned the Ottoman sultan. Altan’s Quartet shows that continuities, rather than ruptures, have defined the history of Turkish autocracy over the past century: Germanophile Young Turks were as tyrannical as Abdülhamid. Altan reaches this conclusion after raising a baffling question: Was “the March 31 Incident” of 1909 (an Islamist uprising to defend Abdülhamid’s absolute rule, whose suppression gave anti-sultan generals dictatorial powers) a Young Turk ploy?

Bridging Turkey’s past and present, in which such sinister moves to gain power are customary, Altan uses a smart conceit: Osman, his middle-aged protagonist, lives in modern Turkey and receives visits from family members who lived a century ago. These “transparent bodies” speak to him “in weak, broken voices,” granting Osman access to archives of familial and national history as he sits among heaps of tin cans in a dilapidated mansion. Perhaps it is this direct link to the present that has angered the authorities so much, the way his work likens the country’s problems today with its foundational shortcomings. In Turkey, a country that has insistently imprisoned its famous novelists over the past century, the treatment of Altan’s life and work is a warning to others willing to submit Turkish identity to a similarly probing critique.

Altan is skillful in laying the groundwork for this volume’s milieu: the penultimate decade of the Ottoman Caliphate. Once containing Islam’s Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina, “the sick man of Europe” crumbles in the face of Western powers by the 1900s. The book’s characters orbit around Osman’s great-grandfather Yusuf, the sheikh of a Sufi monastery in Istanbul, the spiritual heart of a capital intent on severing ties with its Islamic past. Hikmet, a fragile bookworm who aligns with Young Turks (while reading their revolutionary oath, he puts a hand on the Qur’an and another on a pistol), marries Yusuf’s estranged wife, Mehpare, a free-spirited woman keen to realize her desires. “The only way to avoid punishment was to live in mansions with gardens large enough to conceal these sins,” she muses in a moment of self-reflection. The couple does live in a mansion with a large garden, owns a fancy six-seater landau with its team of two ponies and four Hungarian trove horses, leading a jealousy-inducing open marriage that almost destroys Hikmet (he misses the spot when he shoots himself in the heart). “True love is like a sword wound,” writes Altan, “and even if the wound heals, a deep scar remains.”

Hikmet’s father, Reşit Pasha, is cut from a different cloth. As Abdülhamid’s private physician, he is a conservative aristocrat who takes the voguish revolutionary spirit with a pinch of salt. But faced with Turkey’s rising middle classes (soldiers and medical professionals, mostly anti-sultan Young Turks), men like him stand little chance. Among those who root for rebels is Ragıp Bey, a young Ottoman lieutenant who takes refuge in Yusuf’s monastery for spiritual guidance. Moving to Berlin in search of adventure, Ragıp helps finance a plot against Abdülhamid’s tyranny, rubbing shoulders with Enver and Talat, Young Turk leaders who eventually deposed the sultan in 1908.

Class and gender bind those men. Raised in opulence, they operate in the most privileged sectors of Ottoman society, suffering from bouts of ennui while enjoying lavish lives endowed them by entitled parents. Frustrated about their futures and weary of their empire’s fate, they seek comfort in the arms of women. There is a sad tendency in Altan’s prose to gloss over the depths of female characters and present them as foils necessary for male self-realization. While recuperating from his wound at a French hospital, Hikmet flirts with a nun but fails to seduce her after gifting her an expensive copy of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal. Hikmet’s father welcomes him back home with a different gift: Hediye, a Circassian slave girl. Ottomans officially banned slave markets in 1847, but slavery continued clandestinely until 1908, and Altan skillfully shows its abhorrent consequences. Hikmet also courts Dilevser, a young bookworm with whom he can discuss Balzac and Tolstoy. “I was moved by the pain Anna Karenina suffered,” she tells Hikmet pointedly: “How selfishly men behave toward women.… How distant they are.” As Altan’s band of adventurers zigzag between moments of political upheaval and private intimacy, women balm their wounds, comfort their egos, and, at times, destroy their confidence.

Scenes of political turmoil are more layered. Love in the Days of Rebellion opens with a jubilant scene at Istanbul’s Sultanahmet Square. Hagia Sophia (a Byzantine church that Erdoğan transformed into a mosque last summer) is surrounded by thousands of fezzes that ripple “like a ruby-red sea.” The revolutionary crowd is a testament to the plurality of the multiethnic empire:

Thracian shepherds, seamen from the islands, Arabs from whom wafted the spicy smell of their mysterious peninsula, Jews who had migrated from sacred cities, Montenegrins with pistols in their cummerbunds, Bulgarians and Kurds, Kirgiz, Gypsies who sang and danced constantly, and Tatars with high cheekbones.

When the sultan races through them in his carriage, the crowd parts “like the Red Sea miraculously parted when Moses touched it with his staff.”

Altan uses this revolutionary moment to reveal his characters’ reactions to chaos and order. Reşit is sheepishly loyal to his sultan, and his proximity to power gives Altan artistic license to portray Abdülhamid’s life in fine, mostly factual detail. A photography aficionado, a reader of Arthur Conan Doyle novels (the sultan personally told Conan Doyle he disliked his historical romances), and paranoid to the extent that he considers showering in a cage, Abdülhamid is “afraid and interested in everyone.” He has a rural coffeehouse built nearby, where a waiter treats him like an ordinary customer “to bring a little bit of the outside world into his palace.”

By the finale of Altan’s novel, German-educated Young Turks had sent Abdülhamid off to exile in Salonica. There is joy in watching the sultan “who had not allowed his subjects to read what they wanted” now complain about not being allowed to read newspapers himself—“he’d realized how painful this was.” The dishonored sultan was forced to sign “a document handing over a million in gold he had in German banks over to the army, he’d lost his teeth, he’d been imprisoned in a mansion in exile and had lost his wealth after abdicating.”

When Love in the Days of Rebellion first came out in Turkish, Altan described its style as neoclassical: “It will replace the postmodernist inclination in modern Turkish fiction.” To some degree it did. In the next two decades, a flurry of popular historical novels considered different facets of early-twentieth-century Turkey through styles less challenging than Pamuk’s and Shafak’s postmodern fictions. Novels by Altan and Ayşe Kulin, another bestselling writer translated into English, seeped into popular culture by raising questions about Turkey’s national identity built on othering Kurds and Armenians, and helped change the dominant nationalist perspective of Turkish historical novels.

Altan’s view of Turkish history is bleak and skeptical of a progressive arc. “Whatever you do, whatever you call your form of government, you end up with a sultan at the top,” one of his characters muses. Another sees how “tyranny never ended in this land, that one tyranny had ended only for another to begin, that nothing other than tyranny could grow” in Turkey. His novel’s final sections detail how Young Turks (“an administration unaccustomed to governance”) ruled Turkey even more harshly, selling out Armenian, Jewish, and Muslim revolutionaries who initially supported them to build a democratic country. Killing reactionary-looking Muslims (they were in fact drunken, unruly soldiers in Islamic garments), Sheikh Yusuf sees, was but a planned tactic for grabbing power. “While we were celebrating getting rid of one tyrant, a hundred more tyrants took over,” says Ragıp. The Germanophile general who takes over Turkey’s reins governs “like a complete dictator with an authority that no sultan had possessed for some years.”

Soon a hush descends on Istanbul: “There were no arguments, no shouting, no laughter, no shopkeepers bantering from one side of the street to the other, no women talking from their windows … it was even forbidden to run in the streets, people avoided walking quickly lest they be thought to be running, everyone made a point of walking slowly.” The first order of generals is to burn the denunciations commissioned by the paranoid Abdülhamid, and millions of sheets of paper are piled into stacks and set on fire. These terrifying letters of denunciation

that had darkened the lives of thousands of people and that had nourished and increased the unjustified fears of an apprehensive sultan spread over the capital as ash and smoke like a pus that had accumulated in the collective bloodstream of an entire society, reminding everyone of their guilt and complicity.

In Altan’s novel, not many people object to this bonfire of archives. What Young Turks did was to “clear the past and save everyone from past fears by burning these documents that proved almost everyone had taken part in the tyranny of this period.” The Quartet’s final novel, if it is ever written, will tell of the Armenian Genocide, another act of historical erasure, planned and executed by the same leaders.

To modern Turkey, too, these tactics left a troublesome legacy. The putschist mindset, crystallized in Ragıp’s Young Turk brother Cevat’s words—“Who else but the military can protect this country … if the army removes itself from politics the motherland will fall into the hands of the reactionaries”—later solidified in a militarist tutelage system that ruled Turkey into the twenty-first century (as recently as in 2016, a band of Turkish generals staged a violent coup crushed by civilians). It paused briefly in 2002 with the rise to power of Erdoğan, who initially fashioned himself as a conservative democrat keen to retrieve the lost honor of Sultan Abdülhamid and rolled back century-old racist laws that suppressed the minorities whose properties modern Turkey confiscated and was built on. But a few years into power, Erdoğan revealed his authoritarian ambitions. In 2018, he built a presidential system that allowed him to annul election results, detain and replace elected mayors with loyal placeholders, and rule Turkey by decree. As Altan foretold, anyone “who enters politics has a bit of Sultan in them” in Turkey.

In a chilling moment in his prison memoir, Altan recalls a scene from the Quartet where Ragıp ponders the gap between the moment a person’s destiny changes and the moment the person realizes this, which, he writes, is “the most tragic and frightening aspect of life.” The loss of control over one’s life is terrifying, all the more so for an author imprisoned for his ideas. “The future became clear, but the person continued to wait for another future with other expectations and dreams without realizing that the future had already been determined.” As he waited to hear the outcome of his trial in 2018, hoping for freedom but already condemned to life imprisonment, Altan felt a shiver: “I wrote years ago about the turmoil I’m going through at this very moment. I live now what I write in my novel. I am a novelist living his novel. My life imitates my novel.”