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BOOKS >In historical fiction, top-selling Turkish writer offers modern critique

Ayla Jean Yackley - Reuters

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Best-selling Turkish crime writer Ahmet Ümit may have set his latest novel in the final years of the Ottoman Empire, but he says its themes are very much of the present day: A drift towards authoritarianism and erosion of freedom of expression. 

As parts of the media and academia decry what they say is an unprecedented crackdown, Ümit, 55, a former communist activist who was tortured during military rule, offers a blistering critique of modern Turkey through a fictional lens. 

His latest historical mystery, “Farewell, My Beautiful Motherland,” is told through the eyes of a revolutionary a century ago in the final years of Ottoman rule, when the Young Turk movement sought, in vain, to reform a crumbling caliphate. 

The reformists’ slogans were “equality, freedom, brotherhood and justice,” Ümit said. Within a year “they became an oppressive regime, trampling on their promises. 

“While I remain faithful to these historical events, I seek to portray our problems now... The reaction is always the same: ‘It’s so much like our times. Has nothing changed?’” he said. 

“Today the economy is deteriorating, rule of law is retreating and we see a trend towards authoritarianism... A movement that [promised] more freedom, conscience and compassion has regressed to something worse than what we had before.” 

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan swept to power 13 years ago as prime minister on a campaign of liberalization, his Justice and Development Party (AKP) overseeing Turkey’s transformation from an economic backwater. 

His grip on power has tightened, bolstered by victory in Turkey’s first popular presidential ballot in 2014 and ambition to bestow his office with expansive executive powers. 

Several opposition newspapers have been confiscated or closed in recent months and broadcasters taken off the air, accused of terrorist activities, while critical academics have been detained under broad anti-terrorism laws. 
 
Twitter threats 

Ümit’s 14 novels have been translated into 40 languages. Next week, his publisher will promote “Farewell” at the London Book Fair, after selling a record 290,000 copies here since December 2015. 

“Farewell” includes the harassment, and even murder, of opposition journalists a century ago. “There has always been an intolerance [of criticism]. The problem of jailing journalists, the pressure on newspapers [and closing] newspapers has been around since the late Ottoman period,” said Ümit, who has begun work on his next book, a thriller set around the Syrian refugee crisis. 

“Amid the growing authoritarianism, we see great intolerance for those who do not share the same point of view,” said Ümit. 

“No government official has said to me yet, ‘You cannot write this book.’ But as an intellectual, I need to raise my voice when I see something wrong. Supporters of the government then take to Twitter or similar places to threaten me,” he said. 

Ümit, who thought he might work at a state bank, began writing by chance. In 1982, he was part of an underground group caught hanging posters decrying military rule. 

He evaded arrest and wrote a report picked up by a Marxist journal in Prague. It was translated into 40 languages and launched his career as a thriller writer. 

“I used to belittle mysteries... but a writer writes what he knows. To become political at age 14 in Turkey in 1974 meant I had a 70 percent chance of death, prison or torture. So when I began writing, what came out was a suspense thriller.”

April/12/2016

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