The Pen and the Sword
In January 1986 I came to New York for a gathering of writers that has become a literary legend. The 48th Congress of International PEN, the global writers’ organization dedicated to spreading the word and defending its servants, was quite a show. Norman Mailer was president of PEN’s American Center back then, and used all his powers of persuasion and charm to raise the funds that brought more than 50 of the world’s leading writers to Manhattan to debate, with almost 100 of America’s finest, the exalted theme of ”The Writer’s Imagination and the Imagination of the State,” and to be wined and dined at, among other tony locations, Gracie Mansion and the Metropolitan Museum’s Temple of Dendur. As one of the younger participants I was more than a little awestruck. Brodsky, Grass, Oz, Soyinka, Vargas Llosa, Bellow, Carver, Doctorow, Morrison, Said, Styron, Updike, Vonnegut and Mailer himself were some of the big names reading their work and arguing away at the Essex House and St. Moritz hotels on Central Park South. One afternoon I was asked by the photographer Tom Victor to sit in one of the park’s horse-drawn carriages for a picture, and when I climbed in, there were Susan Sontag and Czeslaw Milosz to keep me company. I am not usually tongue-tied but I don’t recall saying much during our ride.
The atmosphere was electric from the start. Much to the chagrin of PEN members, Mailer had invited Secretary of State George Schultz to speak at the opening ceremony, at the Public Library. This prompted howls of protest by the South African writers Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee and Sipho Sepamla, who accused Schultz of supporting apartheid. Other writers, including E. L. Doctorow, Grace Paley, Elizabeth Hardwick, John Irving and many more, also disapproved of Schultz’s presence, protesting that writers were being set up ”as a forum for the Reagan administration,” as Doctorow put it.
In the days that followed, Cynthia Ozick circulated a petition attacking Bruno Kreisky, the Jewish ex-Chancellor of Austria and a Congress participant, because he had met with Arafat and Qaddafy. (As I recall, Kreisky’s defenders pointed out that during his chancellorship, Austria had taken in more refugee Russian Jews than any other country.) During a panel discussion Ozick rose from the floor to denounce Kreisky, who handled the situation with such grace that the trouble quickly passed.
Many women at the congress demanded, with much justification, to know why there were so few women on the panels. Sontag and Gordimer, both panelists, did not join the revolt. It was Susan who came up with the argument that ”literature is not an equal opportunity employer.” This remark did not improve the protesters’ mood. Nor, I suspect, did my own intervention — I pointed out that while there were, after all, several women on the various panels, I was the sole representative of South Asia, which was to say, of one sixth of the human race.
Speak, memory: I remember Updike delivering, to a considerably bewildered audience of world writers, his paean to the little blue mailboxes of America, those everyday symbols of the free exchange of ideas. I remember meeting Donald Barthelme, whose work I loved, but who was so drunk that I had the feeling of not really having met him. I remember Rosario Murillo — the poet and compañera of the Sandinista president of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega — standing next to the Temple of Dendur, surrounded by a phalanx of astonishingly beautiful, dangerous-looking Sandinista men. She invited me to come and see the contra war for myself, an invitation I accepted later that year, making the journey that afterward turned into my book ”The Jaguar Smile.”
And I remember being dragged into the heavyweight prize fight between Saul Bellow and Günter Grass. After Bellow made a speech containing a familiar Bellovian riff about how the success of American materialism had damaged the spiritual life of Americans, Grass rose to point out that many people routinely fell through the holes in the American dream, and offered to show Bellow some real American poverty in, for example, the South Bronx. Bellow, irritated, spoke sharply in return, and when Grass returned to his seat, next to me, as it happens, he was trembling with anger. ”Say something,” he ordered. ”Who, me?” I said. ”Yes. Say something.” So I got up and went to the microphone and asked Bellow why he thought it was that so many American writers had avoided — I think I actually said, more provocatively, ”abdicated” — the task of taking on the subject of America’s immense power in the world. Bellow bridled. ”We don’t have tasks,” he said, majestically. ”We have inspirations.”
Enjoyable as such recollections are, the real significance of the congress lay deeper. In those last years of the cold war, it was important for us all to hear Eastern European writers like Danilo Kis and Czeslaw Milosz, George Konrad and Ryszard Kapuscinski setting their visions against the visionless Soviet regime. Omar Cabezas, Nicaragua’s deputy interior minister at the time, who had just published a memoir of his life as a Sandinista guerrilla, and Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet, were there to articulate views not often heard on American platforms; and American writers such as Robert Stone and Kurt Vonnegut did indeed offer their critiques of American power, while the Bellows and Updikes looked inward into the American soul. In the end it is the gravity of the event, not the levity, that insists on pride of place.
In 1986 it still felt natural for writers to claim to be, as Shelley said, ”the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” to believe in the literary art as the proper counterweight to power, and to see literature as a lofty, transnational, transcultural force that could, in Bellow’s great formulation, ”open the universe a little more.” Twenty years later, in our dumbed-down, homogenized, frightened culture, under the thumbs of leaders who seem to think of themselves as God’s anointed and of power as their divine right, it is harder to make such exalted claims for mere wordsmiths. Harder, but no less necessary.
In many parts of the world — in, for example, China, Iran and much of Africa — the free imagination is still considered dangerous. At the heart of PEN’s work is our effort to defend writers under attack by powerful interests who fear and threaten them. Those voices — Arab or Afghan or Latin American or Russian — need to be magnified, so that they can be heard loud and clear just as the Soviet dissidents once were. Yet, in America, unlike in Europe, a lamentably small percentage of all the fiction and poetry published each year is translated from other languages. It has perhaps never been more important for the world’s voices to be heard in America, never more important for the world’s ideas and dreams to be known and thought about and discussed, never more important for a global dialogue to be fostered. Yet one has the sense of things shutting down, of barriers being erected, of that dialogue being stifled precisely when we should be doing our best to amplify it. The cold war is over, but a stranger war has begun. Alienation has perhaps never been so widespread; all the more reason for getting together and seeing what bridges can be built. That’s exactly why dozens of writers from around the world are gathering in New York this week for PEN World Voices: The New York Festival of International Literature.
Welcoming the 1986 delegates to New York, Norman Mailer wrote: ”If it is one of the great cities of our civilization, it is, like that civilization, in peril from above, from below and on the flank.” It’s a greeting that could have been written yesterday. Against peril, writers offer no stale defenses, but we can, perhaps, offer this bruised and shaken city new thoughts, new angles of vision, moments of better understanding. New York, greatest of world-cities, deserves no less.