Pankaj Mishra writes about brave writers like David Grossman and Arundhati Roy who face a lot of criticism at home to express their views.
I have been reading David Grossman's new collection of essays Writing in the Dark: Essays on Literature and Politics. In 2006, as Israel prepared to invade Lebanon, Grossman along with Amos Oz and AB Yehoshua held a joint press conference to call for a ceasefire. He criticised the Israeli attitude that "what doesn't work with force will work with much more force". Responding last week to Israel's latest assault on Gaza, Grossman underlined the perils of military solutions to political problems, and was predictably ignored.
Why should we listen to fiction writers on complex geopolitical conflicts? Certainly, the previous century furnishes plenty of cautionary tales about imaginative writers - GB Shaw, Ezra Pound - making foolish political choices. Upholding toxic ideologies while remaining mostly study-bound, they invite the derision George Orwell once directed at WH Auden's poem "Spain 1937". Commenting on the phrase "necessary murder", Orwell wrote that "Auden's brand of amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled."
In recent years terrorist attacks on the west have shocked some Anglo-American writers out of political torpor and into an ideological battle against what they, with self-gratifying exaggeration, call "Islamofascism". If this noble battle involves some unnecessary murder, euphemised as "collateral damage", and the harassment of Muslims and other swarthy foreigners - well, too bad, since western civilisation itself is at stake. But then "men of culture", as Reinhold Neibuhr once put it, can "give the hysterias of war and the imbecilities of national politics more plausible excuses than the average man is capable of inventing."
However, writers such as Grossman in Israel or Arundhati Roy in India, who live amid some of the world's bloodiest conflicts, choose not to be somewhere else when triggers are being cocked and pulled. Their views demand respectful attention even when they provoke sharp disagreement. For they have consistently witnessed, and often spoken out, at considerable personal risk, against the ominous transformations within their countries: the emergence of powerful revanchist movements (Hindu nationalism, settler Zionism) the suppression of religious minorities and occupied territories with brute force (Gujarat, Kashmir, West Bank and Gaza); the diffusion of a shrill media culture on the American model, a contagion of ignorant TV anchors and "experts" who together with a reactionary political elite manufacture a consensus about how to deal with internal and external enemies (usually, with force and then much more force).
Grossman published The Yellow Wind, his non-fiction book on the Palestinians, in the year of the first intifada. Equally prophetically, Roy's first political essay on India's nuclear tests in 1998 foretold a decade of chauvinism and violence in India. Unlike many of their literary peers, their ideas and opinions are being constantly and severely tested in an unforgiving environment. In The Yellow Wind Grossman describes asking himself in the midst of a Palestinian demonstration: "If something happens to you here, if they hurt you, do you think it will cause you to revise your opinions? To begin to surrender to hate? And if they were to hurt your child?"
The words make poignant reading today. In 2006, Grossman's son Yuri, a tank commander, was killed in battle against Hezbollah. Nevertheless, Grossman was exhorting the Israeli prime minister a few months later to "go to the Palestinian people. Speak to their deep grief and wounds, recognise their continued suffering".
Grossman cannot afford to believe in the "anti-Islamofascist" conceit that Israel faces a wholly irrational and theologically motivated hostility, which will cease only with the extirpation of the radical Islamists themselves. "Even if the Occupation ends," he writes, "I do not believe the conflict will be over quickly. But ending the Occupation may begin to unravel this knot of hostility and gradually diminish the flames of historical, national, and religious enmity toward Israel." The end of the Occupation will also expedite Israel's reckoning with "the vast social and economic gaps, the tense relations between secular and religious Jews, between Jews and Arabs, and between different immigrant groups".
Rather than expound monomaniacally on radical Islam or terrorism, Roy, too, connects them to the larger, longstanding issues of social and economic justice to the poor and the dispossessed, and the steady undermining of India's founding ideals of secularism and democracy. The tortuous internal struggles in their societies that preoccupy Grossman and Roy do not much interest the strident spokespersons for India and Israel in the west. They rarely ask, as Grossman does, "what would have happened had Israel been able to emerge and live on as a unique national creation rather than, with remarkable speed, turn into a clumsy and awkward imitation of western countries?"
There is a great wounded love in these words, which has nothing in common with the proprietorial nostalgia of the long-distance nationalist for his mostly imaginary homeland. Those who wish to make Israel intimate with, and akin to, the United States, cannot share Grossman's feeling for the uniqueness and nobility of Jewish ideals and the resourceful traditions of Judaism. Nor are they likely to understand his anguish at their betrayal, or the insights he wrests from his painful experience, which make Grossman one of the very few novelists with a political as well as a moral imagination.
Grossman knows how ingeniously collectivities as well as individuals try to keep at bay the appalling knowledge of their brutality to other peoples. He writes that most Israelis, who cannot be unaware of the cruelty of the Occupation, "live in a constant state of conflict, not only with their enemy but also with themselves and their own values".
James Baldwin once wrote of how when "the truth cannot be told" and a whole people is forced to "live by lies", "it becomes absolutely indispensable to discover, or invent, the stranger, the barbarian, who is responsible for our confusion and pain. Once he is driven out - destroyed - then we can be at peace." This is a fantasy of course; but, as Baldwin added: "It has always seemed easier to murder than to change." As citizens of nation-states that have a limitless capacity for murder, Grossman and Roy cannot but stress the harder and wiser option of change through self-examination.