Özgür Mumcu: ‘The old world is dying – perfect background for storytelling’
or Samuel Johnson, the goal of writing was “to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it”. Özgür Mumcu’s The Peace Machine does both: it is as much a rollicking Ottoman steampunk adventure – full of wit, tongue-twisters and roguish escapism – as it is a carnivalesque take on contemporary politics.
Mumcu – a Turkish journalist, academic, free-speech activist, now novelist and generally dashing polymath – carries a lightness in his prose that runs counter to the weight of his life. Its burdens began when he was a teenager with the assassination of his journalist father. Turkey currently ranks 157th (out of 180 countries) on the World Press Freedom index and Mumcu has followed his father into journalism and fearlessly opposed the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
He faced four years in prison for a newspaper column he wrote about the president, but was acquitted of defamation charges in 2016 – the whole affair a frightening experience that he now coolly dismisses. (“Compared with the state of the affairs in Turkey,” he says, “my lawsuit was an unimportant incident.”) He’s accepted a Right Livelihood award (sometimes called the “alternative Nobel prize”) on behalf of Cumhuriet, the Turkish newspaper he writes for. In a country where writing is a dangerous occupation, Mumcu is now a bestseller.
The Peace Machine follows Celal, a street urchin turned aesthete and erotic writer. A duel forces him to leave Istanbul for France, where he comes upon plans for a machine that can bring peace to the world by producing electromagnetic waves and vibrations that “influence the human body”. Celal becomes embroiled in a conspiracy to activate the machine, which involves inciting a revolution in Serbia using a circus as cover. The 41-year-old author is posing a provocative question, which he puts to me: “Would we want a machine that would bring peace at the expense of our free will if millions of lives could be spared?”
Conspiracy theories and populism are like toxic barrels poisoning the public democratic debate
Mumcu isn’t sure if his father’s death influenced his writing – “but I am sure he had a huge impact on my way of thinking.” Uğur Mumcu was a prominent investigative journalist and secularist, and is now widely revered in Turkey. On 24 January 1993, when Özgür was 15, Uğur was killed by a car bomb outside their family home in Ankara. “Some Islamist militants were sentenced,” Özgür says, “but their whole network and its ties were never properly investigated.” Uğur’s research went to the heart of Turkey’s turbulent political system.
Everyone from the CIA and Mossad to a Turkish deep state have been suspected of being behind the attack. To this day, hundreds of people gather in Ankara on the anniversary of his death; to this day, people are still calling for a wider investigation.
“A trauma of that magnitude made me want to understand the human nature and the origins of violence,” says Mumcu. “It also forced me to constantly search how we can all have a peaceful existence.”
What might surprise some is that the book’s heroes want to switch The Peace Machine on, rather than destroy it; a prominent defender of individual liberties has written a heroic tale of striving for peace – but by authoritarian means. His novel, however, is as much a thought experiment as it is a cautionary tale of rhetoric.
“Electromagnetism,” begins one of the book’s characters, “is perhaps the most democratic force in the world. It exists everywhere in every single moment.” This agile eloquence tries to justify authoritarian technology, the novel’s seemingly light style having a seductive effect: danger lurks in words, and in history. At a time when fake news and historical revisionism are rife both in Turkey and the English speaking world, it’s hard not read Mumcu’s book – which offers a secret, alternate explanation for real-world events – as an exploded, critical example of these ideological narratives.
But Mumcu denies having any of that in mind: he knew he would write a novel, eventually, and this is just the story that came to him. But he concedes that conspiracy theories and fake news are “a very efficient weapon for those who want to promote an authoritarian agenda by offering simple explanations and pushing people towards a black–and–white fallacy. Conspiracy theories and populism are like toxic barrels poisoning the public democratic debate.”
However, he was consciously making a comparison between now and the era before the first world war. “Both periods are marked by technological developments and inventions,” he says. “It is also a period where the old world is about to die … We live in an age of inventions and of technological eruption. Technological changes send silent shockwaves to societies. These shockwaves shake the fundaments that were thought unshakeable. The socio-economic order is also no longer tenable. It may be a little painful to live in such times but I find such periods of time serve as a perfect background for storytelling.”
With all the recent talk of “late-stage capitalism” and the influence of technology on politics, Mumcu may have a point. But he is also wise to avoid direct allegory in the book. Instead, he touches on a general feeling shared by many: that we’re coming to the end of something.
In the English-speaking world, free speech has become a cause celebre for rightwing pundits. Everyone from US attorney general Jeff Sessions to your garden-variety internet troll is complaining that political correctness is stifling it. But this argument is often a smokescreen used, ironically, to silence opposing views. “The English-speaking world and most other parts of the world are challenged by the ascent of the populist authoritarian tendencies or regimes,” Mumcu says. “What’s a relatively new phenomenon for you is old news for us.”
He is a writer in a country that “is dominated by a single party and its leader’s speeches and images. [Erdoğan’s] critics are trying to make their voices heard under the threat of getting fired, prosecuted or put into prison.” And Mumcu fears that, if this rise in authoritarianism goes unchecked then, even in apparently settled democracies, it’ll be the left defending free speech once more – from a threat far more menacing than student protesters.
Shortly after The Peace Machine was first published, Mumcu found an article he’d written, aged 12, for a school newspaper. Its title was Is Peace a Dream?
Almost three decades later, he says: “It is possible to say that with this book I have finished that article.” Decades of thought and action – all under tremendous pressure – have gone into Mumcu’s debut. But as much as the novel is a reflection of modern Turkey, it is also about something near-universal: how the joys of humour and adventure persist, even in the most adverse circumstances.
The Peace Machine by Özgür Mumcu, translated by Mark David Wyers, is published by Pushkin Press, priced £12.99. It is available from the Guardian bookshop for £11.04, including free UK p&p.