Endgame: Ahmet Altan

Endgame: Ahmet Altan

Event: Philippe Sands in conversation with Ahmet Altan

Venue: The Arcola Theatre

Report by Alex Masters

There is a real frisson in the room tonight: people whisper and lean in to stare as Ahmet Altan takes his seat on the stage beside Philippe Sands.

This comes as no great surprise given that Ahmet is one of Turkey’s most prominent and outspoken authors who is not afraid to risk his life in the name of writing. There has also been a flurry of excitement as his latest novel, Endgame, was recently published in English for the first time.

Relinquishing his previous life as a journalist and editor, Ahmet is now devoted to writing novels. But what, Philippe wonders, is the distinction between journalism and novel-writing? ‘Journalism is a kind of marriage: you’re used to it, you like it. Literature is love; it’s agony.’ Ahmet speaks slowly (English is his second language – he sometimes struggles for the right words) but it lends gravitas to his words.

‘You leave everything behind when you start to write a novel: even yourself. You must forget yourself, the world, life, death… it’s just the line you are writing, You leave your journalism.’

However, Philippe remains unconvinced. ‘In this book you’re drawing on a well of experiences: life and politics. I’m challenging you!’ ‘I wrote the book!’ Ahmet exclaims, smiling. ‘If you try to find him and you can find some clues and paths that take you to him. But if you believe that I am writing a biography, you will be wrong. But if you want to believe that, fine!’

So, Philippe wonders, Endgame is Ahmet’s tenth novel. Why was this one chosen for translation into English? ‘I have no idea!’ Ahmet replies, laughing. ‘A friend of mine was a publisher… I have nothing to do with it! I have no idea!’

Philippe smiles. ‘So, you’re in the heart of London. Are you thinking: “Why am I here?”’ He pauses and asks teasingly: ‘Why are you here?’ ‘I have no idea!’ he replies, to roars of laughter. It’s a wonderfully wry conversation given the philosophical musings of his book.

‘So, are you a writer, or are you a Turkish writer?’ Philippe asks. ‘I think all writers are writers,’ Ahmet says simply. ‘They belong to humanity. Balzac is not French, Tolstoy is not Russian. They bring new things to the life of the people. As Ahmet, yes, I am Turkish. But as a writer, writers have no nationalities.’

Philippe wonders if that experience is the same for the readers, given that people bring different, personal experiences to the process of reading. ‘Jealousy, love, agony are the same everywhere but expressed in different ways,’ Ahmet explains. ‘If you reach the inner-reality of those feelings they can change in a moment. If a writer can hold them, every reader can understand and take the same joy and pleasure.’

Turkish writer Ahmet Altan talks about his latest book. 'Endgame'

‘It’s very hard to be an outsider.’  Ahmet Altan

The outsider

One emotion that touched Philippe when reading Endgame was that of the outsider. Ahmet explains that being a writer can make you feel ostracised. ‘Readers may love or hate you – it’s a very tense relationship. You feel you aren’t one of them; you can be harmed easily. Human beings try to find someone who resembles himself – if you don’t, you feel threatened.’

Philippe is delightfully persistent. ‘You’ve talked about being an outsider as a writer, what about being an outsider at home, in your community – the feeling of a series of tensions and dislocations.’

‘It’s very hard to be an outsider,’ Ahmet says. ‘I know that feeling: you feel weakness, fear, the fear of being a victim of something, not loved, not welcomed. In your society [in Britain], if you’re an outsider you can’t find supporters easily. In countries like Turkey if you are against the establishment, still you have your supporters, friends, community. I think your situation is a bit harder than ours. To be an outsider in England must be harsh.

’As a British novelist no one is going to ask you about your political views but as a writer who happens to be in Turkey, you are asked about those issues. Countries like Turkey force the writers to engage in the world.’

‘To what extent does that changing atmosphere effect what you permit yourself to write?’ Philippe asks. ‘[Turkey’s President] Erdogan doesn’t want society to talk about the problems,’ he replies. ‘I don’t care. They put you in jail. Up to that point you write. In Turkey you can be sentenced, shot. Every writer is under risk.’

Blasphemy

It is time for audience members to ask their questions and it seems almost everyone has raised their hand. The first is about religion: ‘The main character in your book is constantly talking about God. How are these themes received by a conservative, Islamic audience in Turkey?’

According to Ahmet, ‘They have never uttered a word about it. The religious are very fearful; they cannot talk about it.’ However, as another audience member points out, in Turkey, Ahmet has had a lot of blasphemy cases. Will he face trial for the fact he asks a lot of questions about the role of God in Endgame? ‘I was sentenced for obscenity,’ he confirms,’My [previous] novel was burned.’ He slaps his leg. ‘Let Him answer!’

Philippe Sands interviews Ahmet Altan

‘Every writer in Turkey is under risk.’ Philippe Sands interviews Ahmet Altan

Court cases

Jo Glanville, Director of English PEN, wants to know, given how many court cases Ahmet has been through – ‘which must be frightening, not to mention damn expensive’ – how does he carry on? ‘How is the desire not extinguished?’

‘There are more important Turkish writers than me,’ he says modestly. ‘I think Turkish writers don’t care about prisons: that’s the deal. If you want to be a writer in Turkey, you want to write about politics. If you want to change the system, they will fight back. If they can, they will put you in jail. You cannot complain about it because you knew in advance about it!

‘I can easily engage in a fight. I get angry easily if I believe someone is using his or her power to oppress the people who have no power. It’s part of my personality and I accept this.’

Another member deeply regrets that Ahmet has chosen to leave the world of journalism. ‘Following you through those years [as a journalist] you made a really big difference,’ she said. ‘How did you make this decision to start and end journalism?’ ‘Countries and nations change.’ he replies. ‘As a novelist you write a good book but it will last longer than the country. Literature is much more important than the politics.’

‘What makes a good writer?’ another asks. ‘It’s very simple,’ he says matter-of-factly. ‘It starts by sitting on a chair. If you can sit for 12 hours a day, every day, every week, every month… you must have the willpower to stay in the room, away from the crowds and life until you have finished your work. Find the chair, find the room, sit there and start.’

Ahmet is a master of description, especially when it comes to women. ‘How do you know women that well?’ an audience member asks somewhat coyly – amusingly, after the event, I overhear Philippe say: ‘The audience were definitely flirting with him!’ Ahmet replies: ‘You cannot know a woman – it’s impossible. There are a lot of realities about a woman. Women change so rapidly, they cannot even catch their own changing. To follow this you have to be a woman to catch the rapid, changing waves. Sometimes the changes are so small, they do not even have names.

‘For literature, the only way is to transform to the male, female or children that you write about – you feel like them. When they asked Flaubert: “Who is Madame Bovary?” He said: “I am.”  Good writers only write by transforming into the character they are writing. Just as a medium gets in touch with the soul; she becomes them.’

2 Comments

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