“PEN international is working for your release,” my lawyer told me. In the bare, mean interview room of the Belgrade District Prison he smiled at me, and I smiled back, because the mikes could not pick that up. There were no TV cameras there, yet, to monitor our winks and nods—the language of slaves, as Karl Marx so aptly termed it.
PEN international, based in London, headed by Michael Scammell and held together by Ms. Elisabeth Paterson, an administrative secretary, and Mrs. Kathleen Simson, the secretary of the Writers in Prison Committee, was actually applying for my release. Writers like Mario Vargas Llosa, Heinrich Boll, Arthur Miller, Alan Sillitoe, Josef Skvorecky, and others, I thought, were concerned with the freedom of a Yugoslav who had written a pamphlet against President Tito (a good friend of Heinrich Boll’s at least).
My spirits rose. I paced in the darkness of my solitary swinging my arms, my US Army field jacket feeling like a steel breastplate. I sang, not too loudly (I’d heard the guards beating other prisoners for less). The tune was the Battle Hymn of the Republic, vaguely remembered from my American grade school days. “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,” I whispered, “while his soul goes marching on!”
Though I was not in a grave, but in cell No. 10, right behind the blower unit, the thought of PEN being on my side—a boost even more powerful than adoption by Amnesty International—made me smile at the guards when they came to take me out for the walk. In the exercise yard, I trotted past them limbering my arms, glad of the snowflakes touching the concrete.
In 1984, after emigrating from Yugoslavia, I found myself in London, doing a videotape on Yugoslav dissidents for the AI. I phoned PEN international and tried to see at least Mrs. Simson, only to find out that PEN was a part-time, understaffed affair, not much different from the Index on Censorship—an outpost of Writers and Scholars International that helped harassed scribblers from totalitarian countries.
“Do you know,” my interrogators in Yugoslavia told me, “that both the Amnesty International and the International PEN are nothing but CIA operations, in a Special War against Yugoslavia and other socialist countries?”
Much later, in America, I was cautioned that both PEN international and AI (not to mention the Writers and Scholars International) are leftist conspiracies, bent on toppling democracy in the West. I thought of Ian Parker and Hugh Poulton at the Yugoslav desk of AI, who poured over newspapers in Cyrillic, looking for names of “politicals”; of Melanie Anderson who had written me in exile, asking about other Yugoslavs hounded by The Imagination of the [Yugoslav] State; of the founder of Amnesty International, Peter Benenson, whose father had rooted for a Yugoslavia in 1918, confident that it would become another Switzerland, and I found it hard to see anything in what they were trying to do but a search for freedom.
And, if Mrs. Simson of the International PEN was a Communist agent—she who had taken my story about a Belgrade neighborhood to Index on Censorship, where Karel Kyncl, an exile from post-1968 Czechoslovakia, had published it, with a blessing from another Czech survivor, editor George Theiner—then I was a Communist agent too, despite anything Tomislav Tacic, the warden of the Zabela Penitentiary and a ranking member of UDBA (the Yugoslav secret police) might have thought.
“Selic,” Tacic used to say, “you hate your people and you’re a traitor to your family and class. Too bad they didn’t give you more, like 15 years at least!”
Seven, however, was more than enough for me. I couldn’t really hate Tacic because he was earnest: when I told him I liked Nietzsche, he respectfully listened to his subordinate, the warden of the quarantine, who informed him that Nietzsche had gone mad upon seeing a driver beat his horse.
Few people had ever been more suspicious of writers’ unions (in the East often peopled by Tacic-approved hacks) than I, a so-called dissident writer and a samizdat publisher. The Writers’ Club in No. 7 French Street, where Belgrade’s rich and famous could sip spritzers and eat the best tripe in town, I hated with a passion. Writers, I thought, are either recluses or misfits, and shouldn’t be hobnobbing with party bigwigs and UDBA thugs in a nationalized villa—unless they wished, one day, to exchange places with them.
My friend Djordje Babic was a true poet of Belgrade, but only I and a few of his childhood buddies knew it. Djordje never thought of publishing his two thick notebooks of verse, reluctant to tread anywhere near the Writers’ Club. Nobody, either, knew of Ilija Nikitovic, a painter who, in the coal room where he lived, hovered over his miniatures of Vermeerian beauty. Gently he’d smile at me and say, “It took me a year to find out the right mixture for this varnish. Nobody else knows it, and few care.” During the day, Ilija worked as a sign painter, not because he couldn’t sell his pictures, but because he never even tried—at least not to the crowd at the Club, “Under the Lindens,” the “Greenery,” or the Municipal Cafe.
So, how was I to square what I knew from Belgrade with PEN international, the Writers and Scholars International, the Index, or any other organization of artists promoting an agenda? When a Belgrade Committee for the Defense of Freedom of Thought and Expression wrote in the summer of 1988: “All the leading figures of the Second World War (Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Hider) have after their death been assigned their place in history, yet the political role of the late President [Tito] of Yugoslavia has still not been placed within the objective historical context,” was I to forget their silence when Tito was still alive?
If the Belgrade revolutionary chic was anything as I remembered it, then Milan Komnenic—a poet who had been the state’s witness against Gojko Djogo (a fellow poet and a premature, unauthorized Tito-scoffer)—could be expected to bare his breast in public, like a guerrillero in the Goya painting. And, true to stereotype, that’s what he did: he gave a fiery speech against the Albanian writers for supporting their national interests, instead of the Serbs’. In No. 7 French Street Komnenic—long-time editor of a major government-controlled publishing house—had finally acted brave, behind the bulwarks of the Serbian Writers’ Union.
Still, aside from the nonliterary, bureaucratic language of the Proposal for a Free and Critical Reexamination of Josip Broz Tito’s Historical Role, and Komnenic’s (and others’) political past, I perceived their organized action as a welcome attempt to reclaim at least some of the honor and the dignity of a profession, if not of its practitioners.
But it was very hard for me to join my approval of a call to the barricades in Yugoslavia with what went on at the 1986 PEN International Congress in New York. There E.L. Doctorow denounced Secretary of State George Schultz as the representative of “the most ideologically right-wing administration this country has yet seen,” while the president of the congress, Norman Mailer, proclaimed that the “neurotic giants” of the USSR and the US were both nothing but “drunken parents,” spawning terrorists.
I do not know whether Doctorow ever perceived himself a Vaclav Havel, signing a Charter 77 in New York (I am fairly confident that he never heard of Milan Komnenic); or whether Norman Mailer imagined himself a Solzhenitsyn, or fancied his Marilyn comparable to Miklos Harazsty’s The Velvet Prison (written out of Budapest), but somehow I felt that neither Mailer nor Doctorow (or even Carlos Fuentes) had ever gone to jail for words, else they would have certainly valued them more.
In my Eastern European mind there could be no comparison between anguish in freedom—even out of impotence—and the mandated suffocation of writers in Belgrade, Budapest, or Moscow. In the US, I’ve seen Carlos Fuentes speak against America to Bill Moyers on American PBS (in impeccable, American-educated English), and I watched Solzhenitsyn snubbed and calumnied by the American media, while a William B. Hoffman sang paeans to homosexual AIDS victims in The New York Times Book Review; but none of that could, ever, be juxtaposed to even the plight of Milan Komnenic, in a “differently communist” Yugoslavia.
To me, coming from a place where my UDBA interrogator talked belles lettres as he played with the shiny brass button of his corporate navy blue blazer. Mailer’s professional and humanitarian concern for Jack Abbott sounded strange, next to my knowledge of novelist Dragoslav Mihajlovic’s seven years on the Adriatic Naked Island Punitive and Correction Camp, for “activities against the people and the state.” Watching the men he knew disappear one by one—either at sea, their corpses weighted with marble slabs, or into a hidden cemetery, with undressed, unmarked marble headstones over some of the graves, teenage Mihajlovic suffered his personal (and national) truth, art, and salvation in solitude and silence.
Like, I suppose, all human institutions, writers’ unions are no better than their members. To a George Theiner at the Writers and Scholars International, or a Michael Scammell and a Mrs. Simson at PEN international, or a Phil Balla at the American PEN’s Freedom to Write Committee, there are the Atwoods, Doctorows, Mailers, and others, contaminating any effort at genuine being. When I drank a can of Guinness with Hugh Poulton in his run-down London apartment I was fairly sure I’d never see him on a snapshot of anything glitzy. An Amnesty International researcher, Poulton was interested in fine, grayly-shaded things, hard to scream out by a Sting, or a Bruce Springsteen, during one of their AI fundraising concerts.
Whether in the East or the West, writers and other artists do create and choose sides. If the members of the Serbian Writers’ Union said and did nothing in the Tito era, they—like Gabriel Garcia Marquez in poet Armando Valladares’s case—were supporting a political agenda simply by having chosen to become public figures. Publishing, to me, entailed nothing less than an attempt to be a hero, at least in front of others.
The mechanics of swarming, in Belgrade as well as New York, produce predictable results. When Philip Roth said that in contemporary Western culture “nothing matters and everything goes,” while in the East “nothing goes and everything matters,” he may have thought of Osip Mandelstam and his wife’s Hope Against Hope. Writing, after all, is communication, as is gathering in a writers’ union. Gerard Godin, the separatist Quebecois poet-politician put it this way: “We had to communicate with the English [Canadians] with bombs, for them to realize just how we felt about the whole question of Quebec.”
What, unfortunately, binds names like Garcia Marquez’s (or Nicaraguan Rosario Murillo’s) to Goebbels’s in an unholy, timeless, unconstituted Writers’ Alliance is an obsession with something more than the power of beauty: like novelist Mile Budak (the Minister of Cults of the Nazi-dominated Independent State of Croatia), Hitler, the defunct artist, ended up watching his enemies die, their necks stretched and lacerated by piano wire. And, fittingly, it was Milovan Djilas who said to me, as we walked down an empty Belgrade boulevard (he stopping from time to time to see if anyone was tailing us): “You, as I, are interested as much in politics as in literature. The two are somewhat inseparable.”
Indeed. Every communist government knows this and every Western writer laments it. Politics also—as Gerard Godin never quite said—is communication: selling others on your own priorities, or, even worse, being sold on the priorities of others as your very own. The problem, if there is one, is not in politics versus poetics, or in ideological writers as opposed to l’art-pour-rartistes, but in men who write as they live (and live only so long as they write) and those who, like Vsevolod Kochetov of the Soviet Writers’ Union, use art as a tool—or a weapon—to win. The issue is not in Writers’ Alliances, but in writers whose vanity and appetite dwarf their work.
“When I drive around upstate New York,” observed Nadine Gordimer (a prominent member of PEN international), “I drive past mobile homes and wonder: ‘Who are these people?’ I don’t meet them in American fiction.” True communicators and politicos, even if unrevealed as such to themselves, need to preen and strut among peers. “Writers I admire, like Raymond Carver,” said Salman Rushdie, “write out of disgust with the corrosion of this country [the US] and so write very small and circumscribed stories. There’s a suspicion of scale. These tiny fictions are a way of reconstructing values from the ground up.”
Rushdie, like Doctorow, has chosen his side. I suppose that reconstructing values (or upkeeping the honored ones) is what Mary Lee Settle, Walker Percy, Wendell Berry, and some other Americans have been doing, while mostly ignored by the American literary establishment. Not content with stitch work on the Gobelins of minor fiction, hermetic poetry, or hackwork, members of no movement, writers’ union, or Bund, Garrett, Chappell, Lytle, and some of their students have made their choice. Taking their lumps as they come—as Canadians Margaret Atwood and Timothy Findley sneeringly bask in the praise of New York—these archetypal Americans work on, confident that no one will have to bail them out of any prison—velvet, concrete, or even like Jack Abbott’s.
Willy-nilly, writers—by the choice of their profession—are the seismographs of mankind. With truth and power directly proportional to their talent, honesty, and honor, they tell us, often to their own dismay, where the big ones are rolling from. As readers, we also have the freedom of choice: to mind the beeps of Brodkeys, Mary Morrises, or Rosellen Browns, or to scramble to the true howls (not Ginsberg’s) of Babels, Keseys, or Bulgakovs, all screaming with thousands—even millions—of lives not entirely their own.
PEN international, PEN American Center (and their Freedom to Write Committee), US Helsinki Watch’s Committee for the Defense of Journalists, even New York congresses titled The Writer’s Imagination and the Imagination of the State; committees to free Mihajlo Mihajlov, Adem Demaci, or Ivan Klima; Nobel Prizes for literature given to Ivo Andric, Boris Pasternak (for his DT. Zhivago, not for his poems), and withheld from Jorge Luis Borges, or Ezra Pound—are all inescapable, at least as long as East European secret policemen wear gold-rimmed glasses and dress like executives.
“Selic,” I was told by my UDBA interrogator, “why did you have to write your, whatever, this week, and make me miss the closing of the Belgrade Film Festival?”
I, for one, am certainly more than grateful to Michael Scammell and Mrs. Kathleen Simson of the International PEN for having helped me get out, and stay out, of the Zabela Punitive and Correctional Home in eastern Serbia. A new PEN International Congress is scheduled for 1989 in Canada (will Godin attend?), to be equally subdivided between Toronto and Montreal, in answer to the bickering between the English- and French-speaking PEN’s. Even if Pierre Elliot Trudeau does not address the distinguished audience—as he did in New York, in 1986—Margaret Atwood certainly will, to explain to everyone just how devilish America is.
So let her. Unless American writers disprove Sven Delblanc of Sweden (“You don’t have any truly great writers,”) all the organizing—pro and con—will not help us any. Atwood and Delblanc will gain by default, with no one to blame but the inchoate, unincorporated brotherhood of other authors unwilling, or unable, to offer themselves to their truth. If, ultimately, our age offers no great art, which one will, and to whom? “