Monday, 19 September 2011

Six Degrees of Separation

Linda and I caught the airport bus from the Belgrade Continental Hotel this morning at 5.45am.  Bleary-eyed from last night’s farewells we roamed around the glare of the early morning terminal in search of coffee, trying not to think of the ten hours travel still ahead of us or how little sleep each of us had managed the night before.

Charlie Foran of PEN Canada had come on a different bus but I stumbled across him in one of the soulless airport cafes looking as zombie-fied as I felt.  I had met Charlie in Tokyo last year and immediately liked his conversation and sense of humour.  Earlier in the week he’d sniffed out a lurid story about our hotel, that the Serbian nationalist thug Arkan had been assassinated in the lobby of the Continental.  You may remember him: Arkan was a brazen gangster whose murderous nature was legitimised by Milosevic during the civil war, famously photographed holding two tiger cubs by the scruff of the neck as his balaclavaed henchmen stood behind with their Kalashnikovs across their chests.  He was shot at point blank range by four young men who had just emerged from the hotel gym, and I have to confess I enjoyed Charlie’s story as it bestowed an otherwise unremarkable venue with a touch of black glamour.

We’d had a few interesting conversations over the course of the week here, ranging from Murakami’s latest epic novel to the self-loathing that bubbles up when writers don't write, and we soon fell into another at this final, chance meeting.  Charlie was working on his laptop when I sat down and we were soon talking about the blogosphere.  I told him I was blogging for the first time ever and had mentioned his fellow countryman Michael Ignatieff in a previous entry, criticising his continued justification of the invasion of Iraq.   Charlie, as chance would have it, is in the process of putting together an event in Toronto later this month where the esteemed philosopher will debate with another of his trade.  Mr Ignatieff is not so popular in Canada these days since he returned to his native shores to lead the Liberal Party to an election humiliation, losing more than 90 of the 130 seats they had held.  Seems his erudite discourse couldn’t withstand people telling him he was a big useless windbag, as people tend to do when addressing politicians, though in his defence I guess Mr Ignatieff wouldn’t have had much experience of that kind of heckle when lecturing PHD students at the blue chip institutions like Oxford and Harvard.

I explained to Charlie I’d picked out Ignatieff because I'd watched his interesting documentaries for the BBC in the 90s, and was truly disappointed when he became one of the “big brains” who advocated the use of waterboarding following 9/11, deploying all his impressive intellectual skills to strip the argument down to Dick Cheney’s favoured scenario – i.e. If you had twenty-four hours to find a massive bomb that would wipe out an entire city, then you would do whatever was necessary to extract the information from any suspect you had in custody.  Crass caricatures are the stuff of politicians but we expect better from philosophers, or I do anyway.  Charlie reminded me that Ignatieff subsequently apologised for taking this position – just prior to facing his opponents before the Canadian electorate, funnily enough – using his best sophistry to explain how his views became distorted when he got caught up in the fevered outrage following 9/11.  Strangely he didn’t seem to appreciate the irony of his recantation – i.e. under pressure the good professor’s reasoned, moral humanitarian stance went right out of the window.  Of course, the pressure he endured was somewhat less extreme than a torture victim might feel as gallons of officially sanctioned water cascade over his face to convince him he is drowning.  While intellectually he might reason international law and human rights institutions will prevent his captors from actually drowning him, their screaming in his ear and his own panicked instincts might just compel him to alter his stance of not speaking, whether or not he has anything of value to say in the situation.  He might actually begin to blurt out whatever he thinks his tormentors want to hear, simply to make them stop – the very reason, in fact, torture is redundant not just morally but also practically.

In a way I’m kind of relieved the learned professor didn’t see that connection; comparing his mental stress to that of someone who endured waterboarding might be more than I could stomach.

I would have loved to continue talking with Charlie but my flight was being called so we shook hands and embraced and said we’d stay in touch.  I hope we do.  PEN is many things – a UN-recognised NGO, a leading human rights organisation, an institution promoting literature and literacy as a force for peace and democracy – but above all it is a community of writers.  Writing is often a pretty lonely business, so knowing others are in the club and going through the same things is something to hold on to.

This is my final blog on the 77th PEN Congress.  I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them and living them.

Drew Campbell
President, Scottish PEN
Scottish PEN: For Free Expression, for Scottish Literature, an International Voice.

1 comment:

dritanje said...

Lots of fascinating information, commentary and stories here Drew, gives the flavour of the conference in a way that official reports can never quite do. I don't speak Portugese but hope there's a member out there who does. I totally agree re the British tending not to speak another language - I teach French, so if there's enough members to form a class, there might be a possibility there? A new PEN venture?