For aficionados of the Beat writers, an obscenity trial in Turkey is a throwback to half a century ago, when Naked Lunch was banned in Boston.
The Turkish publisher and translator of William S. Burroughs' The Soft Machine are facing prison terms of six months to three years for allegedly violating a Turkish law against the publication and writing of pornography. Their trial, which opened in Istanbul on July 6, is the first in Turkey to target the work of a Beat Generation writer.
First published in 1961, The Soft Machine is a classic Burroughs drug-addled narrative, relating the time-travel journey of a secret agent battling with Mayan priests using mind control to direct slaves to harvest maize. The work uses an anti-establishment “broken” literary form called the cut-up method. The book also details Burroughs’ own struggle with drug addiction, which is presented as a form of mind control.
An official report from the Board for the Protection of Minors from Obscene Publications, a Turkish government body, found that The Soft Machine, translated as Yumuşak Makine, was “not compatible with the morals of society and the people’s honor,” was “injurious to sexuality” and “seen to be generally repugnant.” Similar rhetoric was used in the United States decades ago to thwart the American publication of Burroughs’ most famous work, Naked Lunch, which was published in Paris in 1959, but did not make its debut on the other side of the Atlantic until 1962.
Under Turkey’s Press Law, translators and publishers of books are considered as accountable as a writer for the content of published materials. Burroughs died in 1997. Members of university Turkish literature departments have been enlisted by authorities to read The Soft Machine in order to help Istanbul’s Second Penal Court determine if Burroughs’ work qualifies as pornography or literature. The trial, expected to last a year, will reconvene on October 11. The law being used to prosecute the defendants contains a broad definition of what constitutes pornography.
Adem Sakal, lawyer for İrfan Sancı, the owner of Sel Publishing, concedes that some Turks see The Soft Machine as purely pornographic. “But this book is about the Beat generation,” Sakal said. “And everyone can read about it all over the world, except in Turkey.”
Sakal voiced concern that the court held preconceived notions about The Soft Machine. At the same time, the lawyer noted that the presiding judge during the July 6 proceedings substituted the term “obscene” for “pornographic,” a distinction that hinted the court was open-minded about the charges. Turkish etiquette usually frowns on the public use of words deemed unseemly.
For Sanci, the publisher, it is his sixth prosecution on obscenity charges. This time around, he has hope that he will receive a fair hearing. “The good thing is the judge gave us the opportunity to talk,” he said. “They don't give that to you most of the time. Most courts are like this. They interpret us and this is something we are used to . . . This is the best we can get from a Turkish court.”
In December 2010, the publisher, winner of the International Publishing Association's 2010 Freedom Prize, was cleared of obscenity charges on published translations of three books; Guillaume Apollinaire's “The Adventures of a Young Don Juan,” Ben Mila's “The Fairy's Pendulum” and P.V.'s “Letters of a Learned and Well-mannered French Bourgeois Lady.”
Sel Publishing editor Bilge Sancı, the daughter of the publisher, claimed that Turkish courts have been scrutinizing the company’s books ever since for any additional cause for objection. She likened the official attitude in Turkey to non-conformist literature to that during the McCarthy era in the United States. It should be noted that an initial version of The Soft Machine was rejected for publication in the United States back in 1959, and did not appear until a couple of years later, issued by the Paris-based Olympia Press.
Supporters from other publishing houses, and a few members of Turkey's translation associations, packed the tiny hearing room in Istanbul’s Second Penal Court to hear the case against Sancı and translator Suha Sertabiboğlu. “We feel pity, as always,” said Akın Terzi a member of the board of directors of Çevbir, the Turkish branch of the European Council of Literature Translators' Associations. “In recent years, obscenity cases have steadily increased.”
Other supporters like Cansu Canseven, a third-year translation student at Istanbul’s Marmara University, stressed that the book was not meant for children and thus should not fall under the Board’s purview. “It is the translators translating and the writers writing who should decide [about content] Canseven said, “and not the law which decides if the book is unsuitable for children. Freedom of speech is important. The judgement should be made accordingly.”
Freedom of speech has become an increasingly contentious issue in Turkey over the past year; in March, Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk was fined 6,000 Turkish lira (about $3,670) for his statement in a Swiss newspaper that “We have killed 30,000 Kurds and 1 million Armenians;” the same month, police seized Ahmet Şık's unpublished manuscript, “The Army of the Imam,” which alleges the existence of followers of Islamic theologian Fethullah Gülen among Turkish police.
Earlier this month, the translator of Chuck Palahniuk's Snuff, translated as Ölüm Pornosu, Funda Uncu, was held and interrogated by police in Bodrum for six hours after the Board for the Protection of Minors from Obscene Publications filed an eight-page report against the book. Police have said that Uncu’s treatment in the station was not abusive.
Representatives of the Turkish Publishers’ Association and the International Publishing Association have sent letters to the Turkish courts and government agencies, asking them to uphold the freedom of thought guaranteed in the Turkish constitution and international human rights agreements. They have not gotten official responses.
Meanwhile, Sel Publishing employees say they are optimistic about the trial’s outcome; work is continuing with another publishing house on an anthology of Beat writings.
Sel editor Mehmet Onur Doğan said he hoped that the trial ultimately will encourage amendments to Turkey’s restrictive laws on publishing. “The Turkish reader, the Turkish people, the Turkish youth need that for freedom of expression, for freedom of thinking,” Doğan said. “Books are always dangerous in Turkey.”
Maria Eliades is an Istanbul-based writer who covers Turkish literature and culture.