(Image Credit: New Humanist)
Xavier de Maistre was a French aristocrat who lived out three decades of the 18th century and five decades of the 19th. He also possesses the singularly uncomfortable distinction of being limited to a room for a period of 42 days as punishment for engaging in an illegal duel. Maistre, however seems to have not only taken his sentence in stride, but also made a capital use of time during his tenure of confinement. To stave off the ghost of boredom, Maistre wrote a ‘travelogue’ discussing the furniture and other inanimate objects in his room. He also interspersed his work with a fair smattering of imaginary dialogues. Unimaginatively titled “A Journey Around My Room”, Maistre’ s book is unmistakably and unmissably original.
Turkish writer Ahmet Altan was a master of preparedness. After all, being a ‘dissident’ in the autocratic and dictatorial regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warrants a more than fair share of readiness. As anticipated, on a benevolent September 2016 morning, at 5.42 A.M, a posse of grim faced cops banged on the door of Altan. The controversial Turkish journalist and author, calmly invited the police in, put on the kettle for his usual early morning brew, and as the law enforcement authorities ransacked his house for non-existent incriminating documents, waited with an overnight bag stuffed with necessities for leading a life in prison.
“I Will Never See The World Again” is a scathing but extraordinarily balanced and compelling account of Altan’s life in a high security prison. There is a sequential overlay of a gradation of emotions that commence with despondence, and end with an almost spiritual (as opposed to religion) delight. From recrimination to reconciliation, Altan traverses a path in solitude. He is John Bunyan’s pilgrim whose progress even though excruciatingly slow, is purposeful. The final passage from reconciliation to rejoicing comes with a supreme and immutable conviction that the walls of prison are laughably inadequate to shackle his soul and sequester his conviction. He metamorphoses into one of the paradox of Zeno, which suggests “a moving object is neither where it is not where it is not.” Altan even while being imprisoned is not a prisoner. “I travel the whole world in a prison cell…I am writing this in a prison cell. But I am not in prison. I am a writer. I am neither where I am nor where I am not. You can imprison me, but you cannot keep me here.”
Altan brings out the hypocrisy of religion and the impetuosity of virtue with an aplomb that, even by being shorn of a modicum of polemic hits home harder than any statement hollered out in a burst of uncontrolled anger. When taken to an infirmary for an X-Ray, the security guard escorting Altan attempts to remove his handcuffs, dastardly appendages that are beginning to chafe into his geriatric and brittle skin at even the slightest of movements, voluntary and spontaneous. The radiologist, a woman possessing an avowedly religious bent, informs the orderly to “leave the handcuffs in place.” Altan wonders about this explicit mismatch and extraordinary misalignment between piety and mercy. “Piety without mercy, doctoring that makes a sick patient worse: the treatment we received dis not sit well with the standards of either religion or medicine.” In stark contrast, a worker in the hospital addresses Altan benevolently and enquires about his welfare.
Whenever assailed by paradoxes, or tormented by insecurity, Altan takes refuge the words of his favourite authors. An inveterate book worm (he was not allowed to get any books with him into prison and after a lengthy process of ‘application’, Tolstoy’s ‘The Cossacks’ is handed over to him from the prison library), he invokes the patience of Viktor Frankl, the philosophy of Feodor Dostoyevsky, and the enchanting prose poetry of Elias Canetti to tide over a tortured mind. After his disturbing experience at the hospital, he banks on Frankl for peace and tranquility. Writing about his horrific experience as a concentration camp inmate, Frankl writes, “some people were noble, and some were ignoble. There might be ignoble ones among the prisoners and there might be noble ones among the guards.”
Ahmet Altan was sentenced to a life in prison on charges that were as tenuous as they were baseless. The shape of the allegations itself shimmered, shifted, segued and stood suspended as they traversed the surreal to the silly. Finally the judges took all of three minutes to pronounce their verdict. They were more concerned about missing their 5.00 P.M service bus that would take them home, than with the authenticity and plausibility of the charges brought against a defendant, fighting with all his might for his life. While the three stooges of a panel might have succeeded in dragging Altan into the dungeons, they miserably failed in divesting the man of his dignity and freedom. In fact they inadvertently bestowed upon him a beautiful deliverance.
Note: At the time of this review, Ahmet Altan has been released from prison, but it is anyone’s guess as to whether this respite would be purely temporary and a fleeting hope that flatters to deceive.