Political prose from prison

Selahattin Demirtas, former co-chair of the Turkish opposition party HDP, has been in prison since 2016. He has published five books during this time. The short story collection "Cold Front" is the second to be published in German. Gerrit Wustmann reviews the book for Qantara.de

By Gerrit Wustmann

"It's not easy writing in prison," writes Selahattin Demirtas in the acknowledgements to his short story collection, Cold Front, which has just been published in German translation by Gerjard Meier, "and what literary work prisoners do manage to produce sadly rarely finds its way to readers". Following on from Dawn (Penguin Verlag 2017), it is the second of five books which the politician and former co-chair of the HDP opposition party has published since his imprisonment in 2016. He only started writing after being jailed.

Demirtas's words on prison writing might ring true on the whole, but Turkey seems to be a notable exception. A great quantity of prison writing came out of Turkey in the 20th century and the number of books composed in prison or following release has exploded since 2016. This reveals a lot about the state of a country which has waved goodbye to the rule of law.

After all, while political prisoners write disproportionately frequently – not least because many are journalists and writers – actual offenders rarely do so.

A whiff of optimism

Alongside Demirtas, Can Dundar, Asli ErdoganDeniz Yucel, Dogan Akhanli, and Ahmet Altan are just some of the most prominent names to have written books while imprisoned since 2016 or at Turkey's behest, or subsequently. Many of these books have since been translated into German and other languages.

Demirtas continues to enjoy very high popularity ratings (image: Getty Images/AFP/Y. Akgulac)
Seit November 2016 ist Selahattin Demirtas, ehemals einer der beiden Vorsitzenden der pro-kurdischen Partei HDP, in Haft. Erdogan wirft dem Politiker Terrorpropaganda, Mitgliedschaft in einer Terrorgruppe sowie Volksverhetzung und Aufstachelung zur Gewalt vor. "Demirtaş ist in Haft, weil seine Partei dem Staatspräsidenten gefährlich wurde und ihn 2015 die Mehrheit gekostet hat. Aus keinem anderen Grund", schreibt Gerrit Wustmann.

The voices that the AKP regime wants to silence, or at least cow, are now receiving more attention than ever. Questioning this naturally grates on the self-image of despotic state systems, which are at the mercy of the erratic will of power-driven actors.

Following the re-election of Recep Tayyıp Erdogan as president of Turkey in May 2023, almost exactly 100 years since the founding of the Turkish Republic, Demirtas's hopes of release may well have been crushed once again. It would be pointless to repeat everything that he is accused of in the statement regarding his detention here, because none of it is important.

Demirtas is in prison because his party presented a threat to the president and cost him his majority in the parliamentary elections of 2015. There is no other reason for his imprisonment. Various aspects reveal just how 'democratic' the most recent election was, as does the fact that the HDP did not put up a candidate itself, choosing instead to support the opposition's alliance around the CHP, in order to avoid a ban and further acts of repression. Demirtas is just one of hundreds of HDP activists in prison, though he is certainly the most prominent.

In his letters and statements, interviews and in his short stories, Demirtas appears undaunted, a morale-boosting force, someone who will not let himself be broken by the walls of his prison. In his texts, he brings together the little guys: workers, Kurdish villagers, hapless lovers, those on the losing side of life. All these stories, except for two, have positive twists, the spirit of 'the Nevertheless' that we know from the work of Albert Camus.

The darkest story in the collection, 'Baran's Cradle', revolves around a young family on the edge of society, itinerant labourers who barely have the money to make ends meet. At the beginning of the summer, they set off in the direction of the sticky heat of Adana, to work in the fields for fifteen hours each day.

A capitalistic, dog-eat-dog society

They spend the nights crammed together in narrow tents without any privacy in the hope of saving a few lira – as long as they're not cheated out of their wages. But they never reach the fields. They catch a bus but the driver is overtired, causes an accident, and the family dies along with sixteen other passengers. They become a sidenote in the daily papers. No one knows about them, no one is interested in them, even their deaths are meaningless. The harsh mercilessness of a capitalistic, dog-eat-dog society motivated solely by success prevails.

Cover of Selahattin Demirtas "Cold Front", German version; published by Penguin (source: publisher)
Lack of subtlety: unfortunately, Cold Front is riddled with clumsy romantic socialism. Of Demirtas' previous publication, Dawn, German daily Die Zeit remarked: "This book is not political prose. It's storytelling of the highest order". In the case of Cold Front, however, it is very much the opposite. This is political prose, and little else

This also forms the background to the other stories. Cold Front can be divided roughly into two groups of themes: stories about workers and stories about lovers. The first group sees stories about poor people forced to deal with the whims of the world, but who mostly hold steady in their good character and unshakeable desire for justice, and always support one another.

The second group looks at lovers, some of whom make fools of themselves, while others win their beloveds' hearts. There is a socio-political element at play here, too, for instance in the story of the thief who steals a young woman's smart phone but soon feels so guilty that he gives it back. The woman even invites the thief into her 'revolutionary' commune. She doesn't see him as a thief; she sees him as a victim of circumstance who can't do anything about his crimes, and can't be blamed.

Unfortunately, this kind of clumsy romantic socialism can be found throughout Cold Front. Of Demirtas' previous publication, Dawn, German daily Die Zeit remarked: "This book is not political prose. It's storytelling of the highest order". In the case of Cold Front, however, it is very much the opposite. This is political prose, and little else.

The Marxist concept of the New Man shines through at every turn; these are ideological stories with a clear message, but there is nothing subtle about it.

Just to reiterate, this is a real shame, because each of the stories in this collection has its own pull; they're very readable, and worth reading, and Demirtas's pen leads you confidently into their worlds.

The best story in the collection is also the longest, coming in at 26 pages. It is the meandering life story of a man who moved out of his mountain village to become a hodja but never returned, and opened a nightclub in Istanbul instead.

Or that's how it seems, at least, until his grandson follows in his footsteps and finds himself on the tail of an exceptionally interesting character.

This story is interesting because this man is the only nuanced character in the book. He is ambivalent, and that makes him seem human; he doesn't exist solely as a symbol of something else, a character whom the author uses as a vehicle to make a statement.

Gerrit Wustmann

© Qantara.de 2023

Translated from the German by Ayca Turkoglu

Selahattin Demirtaş, "Kaltfront. Storys", Penguin Verlag München, 28.6. 2023, 160 S.