January 14, 2007

Separating fiction from real life

A review of Elif Shafak's The Bastard of Istanbul in the 1/13/07 Economist reports the trial of Shafak in the Turkish courts for insulting the Turkish identity (a criminal offence) -- on the basis of what one of her characters says in the book.  From pp. 76-7:

... Ms Shafak's crime was to have drawn attention to the Armenian genocide.

Setting a bizarre precedent, prosecutors rested their case on the words of one of the fictional Armenian characters in her book, which was originally written in English, but which is only now coming out in America.  The offending phrase talked of "genocide survivors, who lost all their relatives at the hands of Turkish butchers in 1915".  That phrase and other unflattering references to Turkish behaviour were deemed to have violated the penal code under which insulting "the Turkish identity" is a criminal offence.

Ms Shafak was eventually acquitted after the court agreed that she could not be convicted on the comments made by a fictional character.

Nobelist Orhan Pamuk got into similar hot water a while back, but for comments he made in his own voice, in a newspaper interview; the charges against him were eventually dropped.  Shafak actually went to trial, but she wasn't held accountable for the thoughts and words of her characters.  In many other times and places, the distinction between author and character would have counted for nothing in such a case.  No doubt Turkey's interest in joining the European Union and the bad publicity surrounding the Pamuk case worked in Shafak's favor.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at January 14, 2007 02:59 PM