In February this year the Turkish writer Ahmet Altan was sentenced to life imprisonment on ludicrous charges. He has since written that as he waited for the verdict, he recalled a chilling scene in his own historical novel Like a Sword Wound, where a character in the same situation does not yet know “that at that moment his life had changed”.
Like a Sword Wound is the first book in the Ottoman Quartet. It was originally published in 1998 and has now been translated by Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi. The novel’s characters posthumously visit their reclusive last descendant, Osman, who lives in modern Istanbul, surrounded by dusty relics of the past. He hears their stories of “conflicts, murders, loves, jealousies, angers, betrayals, friendships, the human condition”.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Ahmet Altan is in prison in Turkey. Photograph: Medya Ajansi/REX/Shutterstock
These stories are set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in the final months of the Ottoman empire: the atmosphere of autocratic paranoia parallels present day Turkish politics. Since the failed military coup in 2016, President Erdoğan’s regime has arrested more than 50,000 people, including writers and teachers. Altan’s fictional sultan is similarly suspicious: “The big roundup began the following morning.” Fear stalks Istanbul “like an epidemic” and spies watch everything for “hints of treason”.
Istanbul is a powerful presence in the novel, beautifully evoked: “This city that smelled of the sea, honeysuckle, rose, figs, lemon … full of the sounds of the call to prayer”. Like a Sword Wound is about love as well as politics, charting several interconnected relationships. Hikmet Bey, son of the sultan’s doctor and an Ottoman princess, marries the beautiful Mehpare Hanım. Their unconventional sex life is an erotic saga in itself, the book’s title taken from Hikmet Bey’s diary: “True love is like a sword wound, and even when the wound heals a deep scar remains.”
Tiny incidents represent the larger panorama “just as we can see microbes in a drop of blood”. Altan uses a Tolstoyan combination of the epic and the intimate to explore questions of national identity and historical narrative. One character tells another: “We are living in a difficult and trying period, Sheikh Efendi; at times like these politics is everybody’s business. What you call politics is the lives of the people.” Osman observes gloomily: “Tyranny never ended in this land.” But Altan’s statement from a Turkish courtroom suggests optimism. He said politicians may think their regime will last indefinitely, but “I know tomorrow is coming; it always does.”