“They shot him and made a bonfire of all his books”
(Hugh MacDiarmid, The Battle Continues, 1957)
MacDiarmid’s dramatic words remind us that book burning has always been the ultimate act of political and religious reprisal, bigotry and censorship. He was writing about Garcia Lorca’s death and the destruction of his works in a political world that seems far away from us now. So it might come as a surprise to discover that similar acts of censorship are still being proposed in Europe. The historical novelist and fellow blogger Rita Charbonnier initially wrote to me explaining the situation in Italy – her blog has been one of many instrumental in raising awareness of the case. This is my small gesture in support of an ongoing battle for a right that we normally take for granted, but which, when threatened, becomes extraordinarily important: the freedom to write, and consequently, the freedom to read books that are stocked in public libraries and reflect the full spectrum of a country’s literary output.
For some time Italy has been in danger of losing this precious and vital commodity, namely freedom of expression (see an earlier blog here on similar concerns – and the situation is even more critical now in view of events during a live programme presented by respected journalist Gad Lerner only last week). However, to return to the threat of literary censorship, in mid January matters took a turn for the worse in the Veneto with what has become known as the ‘Speranzon case’. Cutting to the quick, the influential quintet of writers, known collectively as Wu Ming Foundation, published this summary of the facts on their blog:
The Assessor for Culture of the province of Venice, a guy called Speranzon – a former activist of the MSI [the old neo-fascist party, active from 1946 to 1994] and now a member of Berlusconi’s party – approved a proposal from a party colleague and will order Venetian libraries to:
1) Remove from shelves all the books written by any author who signed a 2004 petition asking for Cesare Battisti’s release from jail;
2) Abstain from organizing events featuring such writers (they must be declared “undesirable persons”, he says).
Any librarian who will not accept this diktat “will be held responsible” of his behavior. Is this a hint about fund freezing, withdrawal of patronage, mobbing, hostile media campaigning?
The proposal was lauded by the COISP, a policemen union. The poor librarian will think twice, before opposing local authorities and the police.
A clique of “honest democratic citizens” is already trying to extend the thing to the whole Veneto, and the initiative is likely to be emulated beyond regional borders.
They issued a ‘call to arms’ which has been energetically taken up, resulting in a series of protests by librarians, authors and readers. As Wu Ming Foundation states: “the Battisti case here is just a pretext. If they didn’t have that, they would find another”. Essentially, by banning the books of any author who signed that petition back in 2004, the Veneto authorities have been able to remove books by a wide spectrum of “undesirable” and “dissenting voices”, ranging from Roberto Saviano (author of Gomorrah, whose recent TV programme was an inspiration to listen to) to the WMF authors themselves, and the list goes on:
Valerio Evangelisti, Massimo Carlotto, Tiziano Scarpa, Nanni Balestrini, Daniel Pennac, Giuseppe Genna, Giorgio Agamben, Girolamo De Michele, Vauro, Lello Voce, Pino Cacucci, Christian Raimo, Sandrone Dazieri, Loredana Lipperini, Marco Philopat, Gianfranco Manfredi, Laura Grimaldi, Antonio Moresco, Carla Benedetti, Stefano Tassinari …
Many of the authors and their readers have reacted and protested in public because acts like this, however trivial they might seem, are just the start of an insidious and forcible “narrowing” of the multiple viewpoints that make up our world: as if an arbitary decision were taken to exclude a particular colour from a kaleidoscope. It would not take many such decisions to reduce a multicoloured, multifaceted picture to a dull monochrome. Nor does it take much to move a society from many voices to one, from a healthy variety of political views to one, dictatorship. It’s a sobering thought.
At a recent public meeting, in Preganziol (Treviso) on 27 January, Wu Ming #1, Stefano Tassinari, Serge Quadruppani and Lello Voce – all authors whose books have been censured – spoke out against the ban and read passages from their own or other authors’ works. I was particularly struck by what Lello Voce had to say:
“The real alternative here is not whether to side with the terrorist [Cesare Battisti] or the censor, but instead whether to side with the censors or with those who believe that culture must be free. I would still be here if they had banned a book by [Ezra] Pound, by [Knut] Hamsun or by [Pierre] Drieu La Rochelle from the library. Books themselves are never harmful. Ever. They must be read and set in context.”
I’m ashamed to say that I had to look up Pierre Drieu La Rochelle – an author who became a proponent of French fascism before the War and subsequently a well-known collaborationist under the Vichy regime. Knut Hamsun, whom the Guardian describes as “the Nazi novelist you should read“, won the 1920 Nobel Prize for Literature but since the War his works have – like those of the French collaborationist – been similarly tainted by his horrific political views. However, his writing is another matter, writes Rob Woodard:
Whether we like the man or not, it seems to me both foolish and pointless to continue ignoring the significance of Hamsun’s work – if for no other reason than it’s an important part of our literary evolution and denying this can do nothing but cloud our understanding of our ourselves as readers and writers.
So what is the message: leave politics out in the cold, and instead let readers form their own opinions about which books are worth reading.
In Preganziol, Lello Voce ended with a recital of his own poem, calling for a “fragile revolution” in which he referred to the reaction on 14 December 2010 when Rome, too, for a night at least, appeared to be on the brink of change.
For the past six days or so our screens have been filled with the extraordinary events taking place in Egypt – events driven by the power of the people. Perhaps this helps to set in perspective this stupid petition – in the sense of ignorant, not trivial – proposed by the Assessor for Culture in Veneto. As Lello Voce rightly pointed out, Italy has one of the most comprehensively democratic Constitutions in the world: these officials in the Veneto, their political superiors and their supporters should not be allowed to sully it.