When I was eight my views on literature were precise and unshakable and my confidence in myself much greater than it is now.
I had decided O. Henry was the world’s best author.
During Prohibition, the folks who bought one of Andy’s two-dollar canes and had the wit to unscrew the head of the cane by two full turns to the right and hold it to their mouth had, as a reward for their acumen, a half pint of smuggled whisky trickle down their throat.
If the man who wrote this wasn’t the world’s best author, then who was?
And how about the decision the three grifters made when things got messy, wasn’t that wonderful?
Things had come to such a fine pass that honesty was the best policy.
One day at a tea garden, I shared my judgment of O. Henry with my uncle’s fiancée.
A smile of such kindliness appeared on the young woman’s face that, along with the large parasol right behind her, the tablecloth in front of her, and the pebble-stone pathway on the ground, it became stamped onto my memory like a photograph.
Even at that age I could sense that if someone smiles at you with such kindliness something has to be wrong.
“You might want to wait until you read the classics before making a final decision on that,” she told me.
But I wasn’t the kind of child who would change his mind for a kindly smile.
I stuck to it.
When I was ten, my father gave me Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage around My Room. “You might like this,” he said.
I loved it.
O. Henry ceded his throne to this mischievous aristocrat whom the king locked up in his room for dueling, and who described his life and thoughts from within the confines of that room.
To tell of a life from inside a room—now that was something interesting.
I soon discovered there was no such category as “best author.”
When they arrested me and threw me in a cell, I inevitably thought about the voyage around a single room.
I, too, decided to go on a journey.
The cell around which I travel is quite a bit different from de Maistre’s.
It has two iron doors; one opens onto the corridor, the other onto the courtyard. The door to the corridor is always locked, but they open the door to the courtyard at eight in the morning and close it at six in the evening every day.
In the middle of the door to the corridor, there is a hatch that is bolted from the other side. They serve our meals through that hatch and when they want to say something to us they speak through it. In order to answer, you have to bend halfway down.
The length of the cell is six steps, its width four.
When you enter from the courtyard, there is an antechamber with its own iron door. That is the toilet and shower, with a sink to wash your face and hands. The door doesn’t have a lock.
Next to the bathroom a steel sink is mounted on the wall. Our plates, forks, glasses, and electric kettle sit there. There is a steel cupboard above. Tea, coffee, sugar, salt, olive oil, and the biscuits we buy from the commissary are in there.
Against the wall facing the steel sink is a small fridge, on top of which is a small television.
A stone staircase near the door to the corridor leads to the mezzanine, which has three iron beds secured to the ground by iron nails, and three steel wardrobes. There is no other furniture.
The empty space under the staircase is our storage area, housing a plastic bucket with bottles of detergent in it, a plastic tub in which we wash our laundry, rolls of toilet paper and paper towels, packets of napkins, a case of mineral water, the fan we use in the summer, and extra packages of tea and coffee.
Our small white plastic table is three feet in width and three feet in length, and our three plastic chairs are just to the left of the door to the courtyard.
We spend most of our time sitting in those plastic chairs.
We each bought a thin cushion from the commissary. We aren’t allowed to buy a second, so we taped Scotch-Brite sponges together, placed them in a garbage bag and made ourselves extra cushions.
We eat our meals at our plastic table.
I write my defense statements and essays at that table with a ballpoint pen I bought from the commissary.
As I write, my cellmates sit near me and watch TV.
I can write anywhere—sound and movement don’t distract me. In fact, once I start writing I stop noticing what’s going on around me. I go into an invisible room all by myself and cut off my ties with the rest of the world.
I forget everything that is not part of what I’m writing about.
Forgetting is the greatest source of freedom a person can have. The prison, the cell, the walls, the doors, the locks, the problems, and the people—everything and everyone placing limits on my life and telling me “you cannot go beyond” is erased and gone.
The act of writing harbors a magical paradox—it is something that you can take refuge and hide in while at the same time you are opening yourself up to the world and spreading out with your words.
It enables you not only to forget but also to be remembered.
Like all writers, I want both to forget and to be remembered.
The desire to forget is innocent—everyone indulges in it and understands it, and you can easily speak of this desire.
The desire to be remembered isn’t tolerated so readily—it’s seen as greedy and arrogant, and it makes people angry. People see it as a mortal’s claim on a divine right.
So it is.
But what’s wrong with wanting to steal the fire that belongs to the gods? Isn’t the human adventure also a venture in deification?
Don’t we live by becoming continuously both a little more deified and a little more submerged in the banalities of humankind? Doesn’t the creative brilliance of our battle against death illuminate the world while, at the same time, we ourselves become tainted in the mire of the pitiful ambitions of beings who forget about death?
Why should we give up on deification?
When one is sentenced to being forgotten on a plastic chair in a cell with its iron door locked from behind, I must confess that the desire to be remembered serves a rather human need for vindication.
As I write, I say, “I will forget you but you will remember me.”
How extraordinarily arrogant and self-important, yes.
Still, it is better than insincerity or a hypocritical modesty that asks for people’s mercy.
As O. Henry’s protagonist said, Things have come to such a fine pass that honesty is the best policy.
The plastic table and the chair are for writing and the walks in the courtyard are for dreaming.
Like all people, I have two kinds of dreams. The dreams that can come true and those that can never come true.
The dreams that can come true scare me. I don’t know why. I almost never dream about things that can actually happen. But I can’t entirely control it and sometimes I do find myself wandering in the land of dreams that can possibly come true. Among such dreams of mine is a house in the country, peaceful and happy. A quiet writing room, a beautiful garden, a creek.
In fact, for someone in my position, no dream can be classified as achievable, but I can’t help myself and I still dream that these are achievable dreams.
I escape from them.
I get scared that if I keep dreaming about them they might never come true.
Instead, I throw myself into unachievable dreams. Those are the dreams where I can alter time and space, where I can be in the century and the age of my choosing. It is a magical jungle filled with pleasure and games. There I take life and mold it into a different shape every day.
Sometimes, in between the achievable and unachievable dreams, an image, a voice, a face, a sentence attracts my attention and I immediately take that and put it in a special place in order to nestle it into a novel someday.
Eventually, that single sentence, that single voice, that single image assumes flesh and blood and begins to breed; it becomes a scene from which new people, new voices emerge; it expands like a seed that cracks and germinates; I see people, I listen to them, I talk to them.
I go back to the cell at once and put them down in my notebook.
At such moments, I feel an enormous joy. At such moments, I realize that a corner of my mind that I cannot access is getting ready to write a new novel without even bothering to give me notice.
Indeed, my relationship with that inaccessible corner is quite strange. I know it is there, but I don’t try to get in or open its doors; I don’t even think of that place. I only wait for all those scenes, all those people I throw in there, to ripen and re-emerge, to tell me at a time I least expect to “go ahead and start writing already.”
My walks in the courtyard are filled with ruminations, debates with myself, dreams and scenes of a new novel.
Toward the spring, birds proliferate, they come and sit on the cage above the courtyard.
They coo happily.
During their period of courtship, the male birds bring the females flowers from the fields surrounding the prison—flowers that look like pieces of white lace with the tiniest stems and small daisies in half-bloom.
The birds drop some of these flowers on our courtyard. We take them and put them in an empty soda bottle that we fill with water. We place our bottle-turned-vase in the middle of the table.
The next morning, the wardens come in and take them away. Flowers are forbidden in the prison.
The courtyard has its own seasons, its own suns, its own rains. In the winter, the sun barely grazes the top part of the walls. In the spring, it shines on one corner only. In the summer, the light expands all the way to the center of the courtyard. But in no season is the entire courtyard lit by the sun. There is a side that is always in the shade.
Since I was a child I have thought of the line at which the rain stops, and wondered where that line is.
In prison, I actually saw that line.
It only ever rained on one half of the courtyard. Either the cloud ended in the middle of our courtyard or the walls shielding the wind prevented the raindrops from falling beyond a certain line.
I played with the rain in the courtyard like a child: I took one step and got wet in the rain, I took one step back and stayed dry.
Half of the courtyard was wet, half of it was dry—a strict line separated the two areas. This seemed like a miracle to me. Perhaps it was a miracle.
In my cell, unlike in de Maistre’s room, there are no pictures, no trinkets, no sofas, no armchairs. There isn’t much furniture here for my mind to mull over in various dreams and thoughts.
I have three stations. I am either walking in the courtyard or inside, sitting on my chair. Or I am in my bed.
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.
Every now and then airplanes go by above the courtyard. I see them from where I lie at night. They travel to free countries. When I see them, I remember the unique smell of the airplane cabins, I remember my own travels, I remember landing in a foreign town and the excitement that makes one tremble inside.
They stir so many aspects of longing all at once that the airplanes also scare me. I don’t want to see them.
I live in the same prison as my brother Mehmet Altan, but they keep us in separate cells and don’t allow us to stay together. When Mehmet first came to the prison, an inmate who found out from the wardens about his arrival called out to him from an adjacent courtyard, saying, “Mehmet Bey, here you have to forget the outside, otherwise you will have a very difficult time.”
This is a piece of sound advice.
You have to forget there is life outside.
But it is not possible to rid yourself of longing. You can forget life but you can’t forget people you love, and each beautiful thing you see increases your longing for them.
Sometimes a fit of longing is so acute you feel your lungs cracking, as if a creature inside wants to break out of you. It feels as if you’re dying. At such times, you have to move about in order to escape from the creature.
If it’s daytime you go out to the courtyard. You walk and walk and walk. For hours. Until you calm down.
But what if it happens at night? You have no place to go, no place to walk, no place to move. You have to sit in a chair. The doors are locked. Those are the hardest hours of the voyage around my cell.
Somehow a strange sense of guilt is mixed in with the sense of longing. You get angry with yourself for “not having told her how passionate you are about her.” In fact you have told her, but at that moment it feels like you haven’t. You want to tell her at that very moment, but it’s not possible. These are the moments when the knowledge that the doors are locked really sinks in.
You remember her face, you remember her voice, you remember her touch, you remember her smell, you remember her laugh, you remember the things you did together.
It is impossible to describe the kind of longing one experiences in prison. It is so deep, so naked, so primal that no word can be that naked and primal. It is a feeling impossible to describe in words. It can only be described by the growling and moaning sounds of a dog that has been shot.
To understand that feeling, you have to hear the internal laments of prisoners, and you can never hear those.
Those who moan inside can’t even let the person they miss so much know; they hide it with embarrassment.
There is a cure for everything. Except longing.
In prison, the lack of resources improves one’s creativity. One makes curtains out of garbage bags, hanging hooks from teaspoons, dumbbells from five-liter water bottles, flutes from cardboard, cushions from kitchen sponges, pillow covers from T-shirts.
On the wall near the corridor there is a board for prison notices. We pin pictures there of mimosas and kumquat trees. Flowers of light adorn our board.
The final stop on my journey are the mimosas.
I look at them for a long time.
First I sense their smell, then I hear the rustle of their branches, and the coolness of the wind touches my face.
I find myself by a mimosa tree, moving gently in the breeze.
“Have you come?” a voice says to me. “I’ve waited for you for so long.”
And I look at that mimosa tree. I look at it for days, for weeks, for months.
—Translated from the Turkish by Yasemin Çongar
Born in 1950, Ahmet Altan is one of Turkey’s most important writers. Altan is the author of seven essay collections and ten novels.
Yasemin Çongar is the cofounder and general director of P24, a nonprofit platform for independent journalism in Istanbul. She is also the founder of K24, a Turkish literary review, and, most recently, the Istanbul Literature House. An editor, essayist, and translator, Çongar is the author of four books in Turkish.
From I Will Never See the World Again, by Ahmet Altan, recently published by Other Press.