April 7, 2016 / 2:17 PM / in 2 years

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

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Best-selling Turkish crime writer Ahmet Umit 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.

Turkish writer Ahmet Umit is pictured during an interview with Reuters in Istanbul, Turkey, March 11, 2016. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

As parts of the media and academia decry what they say is an unprecedented crackdown, Umit, 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,“ Umit told Reuters in an interview. 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, compassion has regressed to something worse than what we had before.”

President Tayyip Erdogan swept to power 13 years ago as prime minister on a campaign of liberalization, his AK Party 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.

Turkish writer Ahmet Umit is pictured during an interview with Reuters in Istanbul, Turkey, March 11, 2016. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

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.

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

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“Farewell” includes the harassment, 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, shutting newspapers has been around since the late Ottoman period,” said Umit, 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 Umit.

“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.

Umit, 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.”

Additional reporting by Hamdi Istanbullu; Editing by Nick Tattersall/Jeremy Gaunt

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