Thursday, 10 September 2009

Berlin Literaturfestival 1

Flights are flights. KLM is just a bit more comfortable and civilized than the so-called cheap airlines (easyJet better than Ryanair in my experience). Hop from Norwich to Amsterdam, thence Amsterdam to Berlin Tegel. Car waiting there with driver and my personal host, Esther. Traffic chaos means everything is running a bit late. C and I and Esther in back, Kuwaiti writer in front.

As soon as we get to where we are staying I am enjoined to go straight out for the opening of the festival, with speeches and a major address by Arundhati Roy. I am fairly tired but since the festival is my host I go. The huge festival theatre is almost full with a thousand or so people. Since we are late, Esther and I find seats near the back. Four longish but generous opening speeches in German (there is translation through earphones) then AR gets up to make a full-on headlong speech in English

I have the text of it now but this is no time to engage with it properly, so just a few impressions.

It is a very passionate speech, highly articulate, well-researched and employing a full range of writerly devices. Essentially it is a fierce critique of democracy, and other terms such as 'progress' and 'development'. Underlying it, and continually employed, is the parallel theme of genocide. Broadly speaking, Europe (particularly Enlightenment Europe) has committed countless acts of genocide in the process of colonialism. It has done this partly by encouraging local tyrants to commit genocide, particularly when it has wanted to get hold of some important local resource. It carries on doing so. She concentrates on India, on Kashmir and on tribal regions. She dwells on the hypocrisies of democracy in running governments with minority votes in rigged systems. She employs a number of parallels with Nazi Germany.

She goes through the victim peoples and the predators. She contrasts the condition of a wealthy state with the image of a weeping mother. She asserts that the Soviet Union collapsed because of Afghanistan.

I am uneasy with some of this. First, because of the nature and style of the rhetoric and the simplifications it involves. I don''t think the Soviet Union collapsed merely because of Afghanistan, though it was a factor (this isn't the only such point but is th one I most clearly recall). Secondly, while a great deal can and should be laid at the door of Western capitalism, the fact is that ecologically the Soviet bloc was far filthier, far more polluting, far more careless of human and natural resources than ever Western Europe was. I have seen that with my own eyes. But it was not mentioned. For her it was simple. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc in general was the result of Afghanistan and all lessons were to be drawn from that.

I am never sure of the straight dramatic - and they are very dramatic, that being the point of the rhetoric - binaries. Good versus evil has very local uses on very specific occasions. It is not a world picture I accept. There are specific evil acts. I am much more hesitant about dividing the world itself along such lines.

I wasn't sure whether she was suggesting that any modernisation (incuding all it involves, good and bad) is for the worse. Are we better off without modern medicine, modern hygiene, modern communication etc etc? Was there an alternative Edenic state where the Noble Savage lived in peace? Is there still?

In ideological terms, I wasn't sure whether she was advocating a new form of communism or offering an archaising apocalyptic conservatism ("Everything will collapse in rivers of blood unless we return to our roots"). There was no difficulty understanding what she was opposing but I wasn't sure whether she was proposing anything at all. I don't think she was.

Her mention of the speech she had given in Istabul following the death of the Turkish journalist, Hrant Dink, murdered because he wrote about the 1915 Armenian genocide, troubled me a little. The wife of the journalist, she said, embraced her afterwards with tears in her eyes. I am sure this is true and I am sure it is right to point out a genocide where there is one. I have no questions about her accusations of European genocide abroad. But there was an air of See, I tell the truth like no one else does! I speak for the victim! that seemed a touch more dramatic than necessary.

But maybe I am being mean or obtuse. Dramatic rhetoric and manichean visions always trouble me. They seem to me to partake rather too forcefully of that which they condemn. That's the trouble with being on a mission, or sensing the mission in oneself. The blinding insight can sometimes cause some damage to the eyes.

Otherwise she is a marvellous speaker in terms of imagery and construction. And there is much in her heart that is absolutely right.


Billy C said...

I like it, George. It's good to disect the rhetoric of others and definitely right to question some of her views. Sure, Afghanistan played a major part in determining the demise of the Soviet Union, but would it have happened without Gorbachov and some powerful people who understood that Communism is a barrier to progess in this modern world? Some of us may not like all this modern world has to offer, and it has it's own subtle oppressions, but in my opinion, it's far better than a life of ideals (repressive or anarchistic)that never work. I tend to dance with pragmatic partners.

Kathleen Jones said...

I'm not in favour of dramatic binaries either, but there are times when the truthful 'yes, but, it's all much more complicated than that' can seem just a cop-out. Having lived in the middle east for eight years I'm starkly aware of the complexities, but there is still a need for commitment (though not the kind of commitment made by Bush and Blair). I don't think we should stand back and watch people slaughtering each other, but I don't think we should be imposing our ideas of what is the 'right' political system on them either. But then, like AR, it's always easier to decide what to condemn than to propose a remedy.

James said...

Is the acid test in this sort of experience how well you sense it would go, were you to use the Q&As after the speech to place your arguments? Did you feel you'd be met as a thinking individual, interested in solving the same problems but with alternative views? Or would you get the Question Time treatment?

If Roy's speech had the effect of making you expect the second outcome, then you can be sure that you're being neither mean nor obtuse.

Roy's got form with this kind of thing anyway, but you'll know that already and have wanted to treat it kindly.

equivocal said...

A quick note to say I think you're absolutely right, George. I admire her courage in being able to stand up to the Indian state, but I get the distinct sense that she's virtually being held hostage by various causes and the political movements behind them, that she is now only too aware of herself as a political figure, so that ultimately she is not able to give us all of what she sees, such as some of the very serious flaws in those movements--so that her speeches come off as much more canny than surprising, nuanced or insightful-- and thus are significantly less interesting to those of us who are already part of the choir.

Have been loving (if that is still the right word to use for a disturbing poem) The Burning of the Books!