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.
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.”