Three Prison Diaries

Three reviews of books written in or about prisons: Unfree Speech by Joshua Wong with Jason Y. Ng, Penguin Books, 2020, I Will Never See The World Again by Ahmet Altan, translated by Yasemin Çongar, Granta Publications, 2019 and The Village in The Mountains by David Diskin, Proverse Hong Kong, 2010.

Three prison diaries fell into my hands over the Christmas period: a salutary reminder both that it is a privilege to be free, and that – by virtue of Hong Kong’s National Security Law – I could end up writing one of my own.

Joshua Wong is the most famous of Hong Kong’s youth activists. Like him or loathe him, agree or reject his views, his short career to date has been extraordinary. Unfree Speech has three parts. The central part consists of letters written during his two-month stretch in prison during the autumn of 2017. Those letters are bookended by an account of his life to date, and his thoughts on the world’s response to the Communist Party of China (CPC).

Wong is one that rare breed who seems to have been born an activist. He was part of the ‘first [generation] to grow up after British rule but before Chinese rule had taken hold.” Like many of his age, his first trips to China were before the age of glitzy office blocks and traffic jams of spanking new cars: Chinese cities were backwaters compared to Hong Kong, and his generation did not identify with that China.

His career as a politician – not a “career choice [which] would be wished on even your worst enemy” – begins in his junior years in secondary school when, at the age of 13, he mounted a campaign to improve the food at his school. Using Facebook, he arranged a petition that quickly went viral. He was reprimanded, but not punished. He doesn’t mention if the food improved.

That, however, was just getting started. His next campaign was to shut down the 2010 “moral and national education” campaign, and he went on to be a major figure in the 2014 Occupy Central, or “Umbrella” movement. We also see, during this time, him becoming first amongst equals, standing alongside those today in exile such as Nathan Law, and in prison, such as Agnes Chow.

The central half of the book consists of the letters he wrote during the prison term he served as a result of his part in Occupy. For me, the interesting aspect of this was his recognition of his own, privileged, middle-class background (“middle-class” in Hong Kong actually refers to the top 30% of income earners – if you don’t live in public or shared dormitory housing, you’re already in that bracket). 70% of his fellow inmates were from broken families, serving time for drug offences, and didn’t litter their Cantonese with English words because they had no English to litter it with. This seems to have been both an eye-opener, and a confirmation of the deep social injustices which led to the Occupy and, in 2019, the huge and increasingly violent protests that swamped Hong Kong.

The final quarter of the book consists of four short essays that bring the volume up to date, including the 2019 protests. These set out Wong’s views on China in today’s global world. In short, Wong regards the CPC not only in a very negative way when it comes to Hong Kong, but also on the world stage. Given that Wong is Hong Kong’s first political prisoner, and that he’s today back inside serving another thirteen months, one can understand a certain animus towards the CPC; for a more nuanced view, there’s an excellent essay here.

Unfree Speech is a useful perspective on understanding how Hong Kong came to be as this pass. The writing is reportage: clear and succinct, but with no great literary merit. For that, I turn to the next of this trio.

Ahmet Altan’s account starts with his arrest, early on the morning of (though the date is not stated) 23 September, 2016, shortly after the failed coup against Turkey’s increasingly despotic prime minister, Erdoğan. These essays were smuggled out of prison by his lawyer, and were published by PEN before being collected into this translation by Yasemin Çongar.

Each of the essays stands alone; there is no overarching narrative. A theme that permeates the entire collection, though, is how being a writer shields Altan from prison’s worst depravations. On the way to prison immediately after his arrest, a policeman offers him a cigarette:

I shook my head no, smiling.

`I only smoke,’ I said, `when I am nervous’

Who knows where that sentence had come from. Nowhere in my mind had I chosen to make such a declaration. It was a sentence that put an unbridgeable distance between itself and reality. It ignored reality, ridiculed it, even as I was being transformed into a pitiful bug who could not even open the door of the car he was in, who had lost his right to decide his own future, whose very name was being changed; a bug entangled in the web of a poisonous spider.

That single sentence changed everything.

It divided reality in two, like a Samurai sword that in a single movement cuts through silk scarf thrown up in the air.

Later on, in his cell:

… I throw myself into unachievable dreams. Those are the dreams where I can alter time and space, where I can be in the century and age of my choosing. It is a magical jungle filled with pleasure and games. There I take life and mould it into a different shape every day.

These dream like essays and sequences are interspersed with musings about literature, about his own career as a novelist and that of his uncle and brother, both also imprisoned. These is literary criticism and thoughts on the development of literature; on the way that sometimes, fiction predicts.

And there is also the practical side of things: visits to hospital, his relationships with the other men in his cell, and, of course, his trials – and there were more than one. And, somehow, his humour never quite leaves him:

A court sentenced me to life without parole on the charge that I am a `religious putschist’…

Ten days later, the same court put me on trial again, this time on the charge that I am a `Marxist terrorist’, basing its claim on the same column that had allegedly proved I was a religious putschist.

The same court, the same column, two diametrically opposed accusations.

And, just as with Joshua Wong’s account, there is that silent killer, time. The steady erosion of the hours by the ticking of the clock, the enforced idleness. I don’t know if this is the worst of all: neither Wong nor Altan were tortured or suffered extended solitary confinement, but marking time is a common denominator, the sense that life is ebbing away, and there is nothing to be done about it.

Before moving on to that, let me finish this review with a final insight:

It seems that, given the right climate, ignobility is able to grow and flourish, regardless of how it is dressed up. Such people let their ignobility emerge when they find the opportunity and power to do evil.

Of course, this kind of ignobility is not punished, but rewarded. No one would get angry because they treated us that way; perhaps they would even be given a pat on the back.

Hong Kong, Turkey. Two different countries with two very different histories, yet with a such a common thread.

And this, and the sense of time dripping away through the hourglass, brings me to the last of these three diaries. A Village in the Mountains is a novel, not a factual account, but the underlying theme is the same. The novel is written in the first person and we never learn the character’s name, so “I” will have to do.

“I” was living in exile before returning to his country when the junta changed. His wife was murdered in a random attack a couple of years before the novel begins; it begins when “I” is summoned to the capital to meet the colonel who now runs the country. “I” is offered a deal: he can write for the regime, or while away his days in a small village in the mountains.

He chooses the latter. The village is small and remote. He is to report to the local police chief, Bernard, once a day. Bernard plays chess, and thus begins a chess-like battle of wits. We know the regime wants something, but we do not find out until the end what it is, and how Bernard is to achieve it.

The village is, for all practical purposes, a prison. And, to escape, “I” writes. He is a poet as well as a dissident, but has been unable to write since his wife’s murder. However, as the winter turns to spring and then autumn, and as he becomes involved in the life of the village, the words start to flow. He befriends the local school teacher, who is also a prisoner in the town, though in his case it is of his own making; he enters into an affair with the publican’s wife, and he forms a wary friendship with Bernard.

The novel touches on many themes: loss, of “I”‘s wife, writer’s block, the claustrophobic atmosphere of the small village, where everyone knows everyone else. In a way, all the residents of the village are prisoners, and not all of their own choosing.

This novel is beautifully written and carefully constructed. Here’s a (more or less) random excerpt:

We came to where the mountainside dropped sheer to the valley floor. The crags and precipices appeared a dull ochre under the mid-day sky. I scanned the rocky wall through my binoculars, saw a group of eight griffon vultures soaring lazily on the thermals. I pointed them out to Bernard and handed him my field glasses. He held them to his eyes.

“Horrible creatures,” he said, and meant it. He handed the glasses back to me. “In Catronia, I once received a phone call from a group of terrorists. They told me where I could find the corpse of one of my men… I can see it now – the entrails, the birds’ heads plunged deep into the man’s stomach” He continued his description with poetic vividness, and seemed to find some kind of perverse enjoyment in doing so.

And so the tension builds, slowly but inexorably. A slow but compelling read.

The common themes of all three books is deprivation. As Hannah Arendt points out early in her The Human Condition – which I confess has defeated my attempts to read it to completion – the words “privation” and “privacy” have the same root. The Ancient Greeks thought, she says, that public life was a privilege, one reserved for the few. In our world today, where slavery as an institution has largely disappeared, public life is the norm.

I question this. I live in Hong Kong, and the authorities here are doing everything they can to shut down public and civil life. At the same time that we lose our public life, we are also deprived of our private life: it is widely suspected that moves are afoot to ensure that the government will follow us wherever we go, into our homes and into our social lives. We have nothing to fear, we are reassured, so long as we think no bad thoughts, express no seditious opinions, make no subversive moves. The city is becoming a prison, albeit history’s most gilded, and these three works remind us that all the material trappings of the world amount to nothing without liberty.