Istanbul Publisher Faces Obscenity Trial For Releasing William S. Burroughs Novel "The Soft Machine"
ISTANBUL -- Half a century after a U.S. obscenity trial, the work of Beat Generation writer William S. Burroughs is heading back to court, this time in Turkey.
An Istanbul-based publisher and his translator face obscenity charges for publishing Burroughs' novel, "The Soft Machine," and the same arguments about morality, literature and social value that shaped the American debate in the early 1960s are unfolding today.
"The book lacks narrative unity, while it is written in an arbitrary fashion that is devoid of cohesion in meaning," a Turkish government board said in a March ruling. "The way the book deals with the coarse, sleazy, vulgar and weak aspects of humans will develop an attitude that allows the justification of criminal activities in the readers' minds."
Decades ago, a court in Boston banned Burroughs' most prominent work, "Naked Lunch," after concluding it was obscene. A higher court reversed the ruling a few years later after testimony in the book's defense by poet Allen Ginsberg and writer Norman Mailer.
Burroughs' raw depictions of heroin addiction and homosexuality are hard to digest for some in Turkey, whose mostly Muslim population of 74 million is steeped in old traditions.
The case is part of a debate about free expression under a government that has successfully battled over Turkey's secular political system with the military and other hostile state institutions. The ruling party, led by devout Muslims who call themselves "conservative democrats," leads in the polls ahead of June elections, but opponents say its vows to pursue democratic reform mask an autocratic streak.
On Sunday, protesters in Turkish cities demonstrated against government plans to implement Internet content filters, saying the new system amounted to more censorship in an already heavy-handed effort to control information. Thousands of websites are banned under regulations aimed at curbing child pornography, illegal gambling and other cybercrimes.
Publisher Irfan Sanci printed 2,500 copies of Burroughs' novel, meaning a tiny fraction of Turks would see a hard copy. An advisory panel, the Prime Ministerial Board for the Protection of Children from Harmful Publications, said the book was not literature and was obscene because of its graphic descriptions of sex.
Article 226 of the penal code says its provisions "shall not apply to scientific, artistic and literary works" in some cases.
"There is a conflict between society, and the laws and the government," Sanci, 55, said in an interview with The Associated Press at his publishing house, Sel Yayincilik. He speculated that he was hit by a double dose of old state authoritarianism and a growing emphasis on "moral codes" by the government.
Sanci said two policemen from the Istanbul prosecutors' office informed him that the case will go to trial; he has testified before prosecutors and is awaiting a court date. The penalty for an obscenity conviction can be years in jail, though Sanci said the sentence is usually a fine.
He was cleared last year of obscenity charges for publishing a translation of "The Exploits of a Young Don Juan," published in 1911 by Guillaume Apollinaire, and the Geneva-based International Publishers Association commended Sanci.
The publisher was once a member of an illegal leftist organization and spent several years in jail after a military coup in 1980.
"The Soft Machine" is the first book in a trilogy by Burroughs, who died in 1997. Sanci has released the second and his team is working on the third.
"You can't judge the moral code of the Beat Generation," said Bilge Sanci, the publisher's daughter and his executive editor. She said the official panel, whose 10 members are chosen by government ministries and agencies, is not versed in "literature or aesthetics."
The board is led by Ruhi Ozbilgic, a deputy secretary in the office of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has worked in customs, agriculture and state planning. Nurettin Yuksel, an official linked to the board, said its conclusions were not binding and that it was up to prosecutors to decide on the next step.
Burroughs is a scandalous figure in the American literary pantheon who, along with Ginsberg, novelist Jack Kerouac and others in the 1950s and 1960s, became known as the Beat Generation of writers that railed against the mainstream.
In "The Soft Machine," the protagonist confronts Mayan priests who manipulate the minds of slave laborers, and Burroughs uses the so-called "cut-up" splicing method to jumble the text and disrupt the narrative order.
Burroughs sought to "pull the rug out" from under readers and alter their perceptions by awakening them to pre-existing notions, said Richard Doyle, a professor of English who teaches a Burroughs class at Pennsylvania State University in the United States.
"Without understanding the goal of these techniques, then you're going to be puzzled that this is a work of art and you're only going to see the graphic language and so forth," Doyle said.
The first lines of "The Soft Machine" get right into petty theft and drug use, referring to the New York City subway – "the hole" – where the main character and "the sailor," a junkie who also appears in "Naked Lunch," roll drunks for pocket change:
"I was working the hole with the sailor and we did not do bad. Fifteen cents on an average night boosting the afternoons and short-timing the dawn we made out from the land of the free. But I was running out of veins."
Suha Sertabiboglu, a Turkish dentist who translated "The Soft Machine," said he worked on it eight hours a day for a month and that it was the most difficult of 38 book translations he had done. He said he sometimes sought meaning in a passage, only to realize there was no conventional meaning.
"It is anti-literature," he said.
Associated Press writer Ceren Kumova contributed to this report from Ankara, Turkey.