Reviewing this book for The Guardian in 2019, Simon Callow said, “To review certain books seems like an impertinence. This is one of them. It speaks for itself with such clarity, certainty and wisdom that only one thing needs to be said: read it. And then read it again.”
I agree. I have just finished it. I will soon begin it again. I will also read everything Altan has written, everything I can get my hands on, and I urge you to do the same.
Many books have moved me, inspired me, and burrowed under my skin over the years; I can think of none that have done so more than I Will Never See The World Again.
In 2016, like so many other writers, Ahmet Altan was thrown in prison by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s oppressive regime. Altan was at first charged with being a “religious putschist” and then with being a “Marxist terrorist.” Evidence for both charges was either scant or non-existent, however, the bored, sleepy, uncaring judges sentenced him to life without parole on the basis of three columns he’d written and a television appearance.
None of this came as a surprise to Altan. As NPR says, “His great-grandfather was ‘sentenced to death for helping rebels to defect to Anatolia during the War of Liberation and only escaped hanging at the last minute. His father had been arrested many times and was ‘put on trial hundreds of times for his writing.’ Altan’s brother was also arrested and sentenced to life in prison. The family’s history had prepared the novelist for the arrest, but it hadn’t prepared him for life behind bars.”
Truth-telling and justice are, we might assume, the family business. And as much as Altan has shown a commitment throughout his life to this endeavor, he is first and foremost a writer. What then does a writer do when he finds himself in prison for life? He scratches words on tiny bits of paper and smuggles them out to his lawyer.
To my shame, I knew little of this when I began reading the book, nor can I recall how it ended up in my pile of to-read books. But it found me two days ago and now every sentence haunts me.
And what sentences they are. Poetic, but clear-eyed; profound but never sentimental; intense but never melodramatic. Although Altan occasionally sees the dark mass of quivering madness crouching in a corner, he is never vanquished.
Near the beginning of the book, Altan tells us that as he was taken into prison a guard offered him a cigarette. He declined the offer, saying “I only smoke when I’m nervous.” This is an odd response. Even Atlan thinks so. He writes, “Nowhere in my mind had I chosen to make sure a declaration. It was a sentence that put an unbridgeable distance between itself and reality. It ignored reality, ridiculed it, even as I was being transformed into a pitiful bug who could not even open the door of the car he was in, who had lost his right to decide his own future, whose very name was being changed; a bug entangled in the web of a poisonous spider.”
Kafka is there in the lines, certainly, and it might even be humorous, were it not so unspeakably tragic.
He goes on to write about how this sentence changed everything, how it “divided reality in two. On one side of this reality was a body made of flesh, bone, blood, muscle, and nerve that was trapped. On the other side was a mind that did not care about that body and made fun of what would happen to it, a mind that looked from above at what was happening and at what was yet to happen, that believed itself untouchable and that was, therefore, untouchable.”
This slim volume is rich with wisdom and learning. So many writers and philosophers appear – Tolstoy, Borges, Boethius, Frankel, Pushkin, Joyce, Woolf, Balzac… by the grace of a lifetime spent with books, the prisoner is never alone. There are excellent passages on the nature of literature and what, in Atlan’s opinion, makes a satisfying reading experience. “Ideas in a novel contain grave dangers, because ideas represent the author in the novel. The more ideas there are, the more present is the author. The more present is the author, the more constricted the space for characters. They cannot develop and, more importantly, they cannot gain depth.”
And of course, being a man of both heart and mind, although he is not religious, he does tackle the question of good and evil. A young religious woman, an ex-ray technician, commits a casual act of cruelty. Altan writes, “I was a nothing for her, a non-existence, and far beyond the reach of religion or ethics. It was as if in that young woman’s mind a curtain invisible to me had been drawn tight around religion, ethics, intelligence, and emotion, outside of which was a vast emptiness reserved for handcuffed people like me. Evil occupied that emptiness.”
He is teaching us not only how he managed, in this most terrible of circumstances, to remain human, but how we might do the same.
“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.”