July 23, 2012

Obscenity trials in Turkey get Snuff’d


There’s disturbing news from Turkey this month, as Sara Whyatt, Deputy Director of PEN International, reports from the obscenity case pending against the publishers of William Burroughs and Chuck Palahniuk, Irfan Sancı of Sel Publishing House and Hasan Basri Çıplak of Ayrıntı Publishing House.

Translators Namık Süga Sertabiboğlu (who translated The Soft Machine for Sel and has said it was the most difficult of the thirty-eight translations he’s done) and Funda Uncu (who translated Snuff for Ayrıntı) have also been charged. In the past, Whyatt says, these cases would often be resolved in one way: after a publisher was charged with distributing obscene material under article 226 of the Turkish penal code, the judge would send the book in question to a panel of experts, usually literature professors, they would state that the work was of literary merit, and the charges would be dropped. But not this time:

Yesterday at the Çağlayan Courts of Justice, Europe’s largest courthouse, situated in İstanbul, I sat and watched as a judge set aside expert opinion that would have ended the trials against the publishers of the Turkish editions of William Burroughs’ The Soft Machine and Chuck Palahniuk’s Snuff. Instead they, and the books’ translators, face three more years of uncertainty after the judge pronounced that the trial would be postponed until 2015. Meanwhile he warned that if either of the publishing houses or the translators were foolish enough to publish further “obscene” works, these cases would be added to the charge sheet.

The judge’s justification for postponing the case was that new laws have been passed under a recent reform package and all media offense trials underway must be put on hold so that they can be tried under the new laws which will be undergoing further changes over the next three years. Which does not sound like it bodes well for the future of Turkey’s very iffy freedom-of-expression record, and in the meantime leaves the publishers and translators in limbo. These trials don’t necessarily result in guilty verdicts or prison terms, more often in fines: Orhan Pamuk’s prosecution for “insulting Turkishness” after he discussed the Armenian genocide in an interview with a Swiss newspaper in 2005 is a case in point. But they constitute their own brand of financial and psychological intimidation.

Sancı has been here before, but with different results: last year, he was acquitted of the same charges for publishing Guilliame Apollinaire’s The Adventures of a Young Don Juan (as reported last year in MobyLives) and he has weathered about seven other obscenity trials in the recent past. Sel’s list runs the gamut, with many international authors, some more apparently controversial than others. In the current catalogue, there’s Franzen’s Freedom and The Corrections, David Peace’s Occupied City and The Damned United, A.M. Homes, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Horacio Castellanos Moya; on the backlist, there are lots of Beats. Burroughs’s The Soft Machine, which Sel published in January 2011, is the first book in the Nova trilogy—Sel has already published the following two volumes, The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express. If these too are deemed to be obscene, then Sancı will have already offended against the judge’s warning.

Çıplak responded to the decision in fine Barney Rosset-style: he handed the judge copies of two new books Ayrıntı has brought out since publishing Snuff, Burroughs’s The Wild Boys and Palahniuk’s Pygmy. I’m going to take a wild guess and bet that Palahniuk’s sleeper agent sodomizing a bully in a Wal-Mart bathroom and Burroughs’ gang of sadistic homosexual teenagers are going to strike Turkey’s Board for Protection of Minors from Obscene Publications as—in the charges The Soft Machine was strung up on—“lacking in narrative unity.”


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.