“We got into the police car that was waiting at the gate. I sat with my bag on my lap. The door closed on me.
It is said that the dead do not know that they are dead. According to Islamic mythology, once the corpse is placed in the grave and covered with dirt and the funeral crowd has begun to disperse, the dead person also tries to get up and go home, only to realize when he hits his head on the coffin lid that he has died.
When the door closed, my head hit the coffin lid.”
Ahmet Altan, I Will Never See the World Again
I stumbled upon this masterpiece in a little blue bookshop in Hackney. At the time I was searching for a small book that might offer me some sort of profound insight whilst travelling, not weighing much on the back or the wallet. I was in the middle of haphazard preparations for my upcoming overland trip through Eurasia with my partner, you see, and I was getting rid of most of my beloved collection of books; I needed a new baby to compensate for the loss of all the old ones.
The bookshop was packed with wonderful niche works, from women-focused adventure anthologies like Waymaking to practical operations manuals like Sailing with Confidence. I found myself wandering among the books like a kid in a candy store, absolutely delighted and a little bit overwhelmed by the sheer volume of options readily available to me. But I needed to remain focused: one book, small, light, preferably profound. Just as I was approaching the counter, finally somewhat settled on a small collection of poetry by Pablo Neruda, something caught my eye.
There behind a cycling enthusiast guide poked out the corner of a paperback’s binding which had fallen there some time earlier, if the gathered dust was any indicator. Though fairly new, the book was quite small and easily misplaced, so its unfortunate location was understandable. I pulled it out from the shelf and saw what it was: I Will Never See the World Again. Only taking a few seconds to glance over it, I dropped Neruda and took home this mysterious gift from the universe instead.
I Will Never See the World Again is a book of essays written by the famous (and now famously incarcerated) Turkish author Ahmet Altan. His essays, originally written in Turkish and translated to English by Yasemin Çongar, are genuinely all of those overused book-review buzzwords: charming, humorous, dazzling and so on. But I would like to add that his musings from the confines of a tiny prison cell are simultaneously charming and humiliating, humorous and wounding, dazzling and petrifying. This book leaves you not wanting more, but wanting justice.
It seems strange that a book written by a man stuck in prison and smuggled out for leisure reading during my world travels should exist in anything other than fiction. The truth is that the reality of the injustice of Altan’s situation is perfectly juxtaposed to that of my own situation experiencing the ultimate freedom; when our two situations and the choices that lead to them are placed side by side, reality is seen in sharp relief. Though surely we have both made questionable decisions in our lives, though we are both writers and free thinkers, I am enjoying rojak by the beach in Penang while he is staring at the ceiling of a prison cell.
“One evening I took a nap and when I woke the moon was shining right above the steel cage, its light covering almost the whole sky. Seeing that silvery light with its dark blue hues gave me a sense of fright. It was dreadful to see something so beautiful in the prison. The moon’s light and beauty scared me. Without hesitating, I got out of bed and went downstairs.
Part of me wished to stay and watch the moon, but the other part, afraid of remembering life outside and its beauty, overcame that wish. I escaped from the moon.”
Ahmet Altan, I Will Never See the World Again
The moon over Malaysia is murky and often obscured at this time of year due to smog and Winter. Yet the yellow streetlights along the roads, the headlights of speeding cars rushing past and the elaborate neon signs in seedy shop windows more than make up for the lack of stars. Indeed, life is beautiful in many ways-one might even say that life is, by definition, beauty-so how can a blameless man be excluded from that which is the only thing he has, the only thing anyone truly owns, their own life? That I should experience freedom as I dive into the mind of an innocent man in chains is perhaps the greatest crime anyone could ever commit, yet nobody is being prosecuted for this great evil.
Reading this book has sparked in me rage, fear, sadness, an appreciation for what I have and a desire to win it for others. This book was illegally obtained via prison smuggling, yet I felt profoundly obedient as I read it…obedient not to a man-made government or system or rule, but obedient to my most basic nature, the naked nature of the universe itself. This is the natural inclination to do good and to never want a living man stuck in a coffin, hitting his head on the lid and wondering what he did to get there.
A note on translation: Translation is an inherently difficult job. In order to translate accurately one must consider not what the author is saying, but what he is meaning. As well one must take into consideration the idioms and sayings, connotations, metaphors, grammar and occasional lack of any equivalent word in both languages at once. Yasemin Çongar has done an incredibly impressive job at conveying the true meaning of Altan’s wonderful words. I typically prefer never to read books in anything but their original language but since I don’t speak Turkish this was not an option. Çongar’s translation was so fabulous that it somehow has made me want to learn Turkish less.
Originally published at http://prosebypolimana.com on June 18, 2010.