Ahmet Altan on Politics and Writing
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 31st August, 2015
Fresh from the Edinburgh Festival, the Turkish novelist and erstwhile columnist for the liberal newspaper Taraf, Ahmet Altan, was in London last night, being interviewed by the international lawyer and academic Philippe Sands. The event was hosted by English PEN, on whose Writers in Prison Committee I sat for many years, at the Arcola Theatre in Hackney, right in the centre of Dalston’s recent regeneration. Like most Turkish writers, journalists and publishers who have produced anything complimentary about the Kurds, for example, Ahmet Altan has fallen foul of the law on occasion; freedom of expression is repeatedly under attack in Turkey and the country often has more writers and journalists in prison than any other. But as the novelist said last night, every writer in Turkey is expected to be an expert on everything, including politics, and their opinion is constantly sought. His own political journey has been interesting, as he initially supported Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AK Party as they successfully ensured that the military stayed in their barracks — having previously intervened with coups d’état — but as Mr Erdogan’s self-aggrandisement has increased, with the clear aim of wanting to be an all-powerful president, so he has lost the support of Ahmet Altan and many others. The novelist is, however, confident that Mr Erdogan will be denied his desired absolute majority in the rerun of this year’s general election scheduled for 1 November.
The reason Ahmet Altan has until now been so little known in the UK is that none of his ten novels had been translated into English, but that has now been rectified with the publication this week of Endgame by Canongate (£12.99). Described as a detective story that has been stood on its head (as one knows the killer at the beginning but not the victim) it was lauded by Philippe Sands. Moreover, there were clearly many fans of Ahmet Altan in the audience last night; the Arcola was founded by a Turk and is in the heart of Turkish-Kurdish London. One young woman was persistently curious as to how the novelist writes about women so well. Ahmet Altan pointed out that a novelist has to get into the skin of every character, has to become them. And he quoted the example of Gustave Flaubert who, when asked about his début novel Madame Bovary “Who is Mme Bovary?”, replied “I am!”