Turkey: Stranger than fiction
The Turkish government's battle with the PKK threatens to stifle art itself, says Kaya Genç
20 Aug 10

The Turkish government’s battle with the PKK threatens to stifle art itself, says Kaya Genç

When novelists and poets are brought to the offices of public prosecutors and later to criminal courts (it is always a sad sight), I imagine the spectre of Miguel de Cervantes roaring with laughter at the sort of transcendence created by his beloved art form, the novel. Along with Don Quixote himself, we were (a class of Turkish undergraduate students taking a course about Don Quixote) confused in the second book of Don Quixote where the protagonist had been informed of the existence of “a novel about Don Quixote”. Now, almost four centuries after the publication of perhaps the first “proper” novel, it is even more confusing to witness an author being tried for propagating terror in a novel, through a character, in a book universally catalogued under the category of “fiction”.

The literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin would be less cheerful to witness a practice like this — how can you work “polyphony” and “unfinalizability”, as an artist, when you are not allowed to create Forsterian, “round characters”, one may ask. Instead, under laws that make it very hard for Turkish authors to compose “proper” let alone experimental pieces of fiction, what you get (in Bakhtin’s terminology) is a “synthesised” discourse where “mutual addressivity” and “mutual engagement” are but distant dreams.

Let’s be clear about this: This is not a intellectual exercise in literary theory. Turkish author Mehmet Güler has very recently received a prison sentence for producing propaganda for Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in his novel Ölümden Zor Kararlar (“Decisions Harder Than Death”). For anyone familiar with Don Quixote, it was also ironic to see Güler’s photograph in Turkish Daily News; for the interview he is seated just behind a table in a cafe, decorated with windmills on its walls. So one may ask whether it is possible that he may be an incarnation of Cervantes or even, tragically, the knight of the sorrowful countenance? The Ottoman navy had crippled the left arm of Cervantes; the Turkish government is more civilised — it sentenced Güler to 15 months in prison.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that Kurdistan Workers Party, the terrorist organisation Turkey is fighting against and for whom Güler is accused of propagating, is slowly fading from the Turkish political scene, increasingly losing its legitimacy as a political force in the country for the attacks they have organised against innocent Turkish soldiers who were tragic casulties of a conflict beyond their control (military service is compulsory in Turkey). In a recent televised interview, Chief of General Staff İlker Başbuğ clearly expressed how, after more than 30,000 fatalities, the fight against the PKK continues. But is this the right way to struggle against the PKK? By imprisoning polyphony, a novelist or a short story writer?

The 29-year-old journalist İrfan Aktan, who worked as a reporter at large for Newsweek’s Turkish edition, had been sentenced to 15 months in prison merely for using a quote from a PKK militant. Ferhat Tunç, a popular musician and political figure in Turkey, faces up to 15 years in prison for comments he made during a concert. When we compare these three cases, Tunç seems to have given the greatest offence — perhaps the legislators believe, à la Nietzsche, that music is the greatest art form. Perhaps journalistic reportage and fiction are not as effective. It is a matter of taste, of course.

Mehmet Güler is not the first author to face legal action for a character in a work of fiction. In 2006 the popular Turkish novelist Elif Şafak was tried for her novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, where she allegedly propagated the Armenian claims of genocide (she was later acquitted from the charges). I was also kindly invited to the prosecutor’s office a few years ago to explain the “rationale” behind my short story, “The Most Surprising Fantasies and Wishes of an Occidentalist”, where a fictitious admirer of the British Imperialism would be happy to see Turkey transformed into an exact copy of Britain. At times, this character finds himself wishing “with profound sorrow” that “those respectable members of the House of Lords with their constant and colorful wags and crowns on their heads” ruled the Turks. When I explained, in a scholarly rhetoric, that this narrator had a simply ironic function, the prosecutor, fed up with thousands of cases about books and articles and poems and booklets brought to him by anonymous persons, gave a sigh of relief and that was the end of that. For all this, I find fault with the current government, headed by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan rather than the prosecutors who are simply executing the legislation composed by the parliment.

The fault is always with the rulers and not with the millions of everymen in this country. Last year I served as a librarian in the Turkish Gendarmerie for my military service. The most popular book in this little library, a favorite among my fellow gendarmes, was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. “Now, this is not very different from a solider’s life, is it?” a friend commented after reading the book. Perhaps it is a similar transcendence of the boundaries of the fiction form that leads the lawmakers to create legislation that charge novelists and poets. It should be illegal to prosecute poems. It should be illegal to imprison novelists. Or else, Cervantes will still be roaring at all this and the joke will be on us.