What are the perils of writings? For a storyteller, it’s when reality is more frightening and bizarre than anything you could ever invent. Or is it that historical violence has become no longer historical in that it is just around the corner, down one block, behind the garden gate, driving slowly by the building on whose roof you do yoga and wish all mankind peace of mind? Once, it was interesting living in a country where the rule of law was not something you could take for granted, was not a concept widely understood. You had to rely on your fellow citizen to protect you, to offer you cordiality, advice and warnings regarding where it was not safe to go at night, or even during the day.
Violence and lawlessness are less interesting now. It is just a matter of time before it touches you. Or hits you, as the case may be. It will come again after a long period of civic calm. It will be a policeman, or three, with dark glasses. A troubled young man, or three, twisted with resentment at those who have an education, a job, and, most important of all, respect. It will be Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil—no longer just limited to this beautiful old land of forgotten mines and ancient trails, of hidden springs and clumps of shade-giving trees, of great painters and gifted musicians. It will not come from a hungry man walking a distant trail, carrying a frayed knapsack, moving over a non-Sierra Club trail between two small towns whose streets are dirt and whose pickups are old. Evil will come in a brand new pickup that has never had a shovel thrown in its bed, or in a black limousine followed by black SUV chase cars.
Or it will come at the end of an instructive index finger, ordering you to step out of the line at Customs, because the computer has shown you to be man critical of two, maybe several, governments. You know what it’s like to be singled out. You have already had a passport application “lost” in the time of Reagan, or what it Bush? Your privileged education and therefore your expectation of just treatment as a citizen allowed you raise a hue and cry with your Senator and Congresspersons. Through its obedient Kafka-esq Intermediaries, the State claimed that someone with your exact name and paper trail owed the Foreign Office, the State Department or some other governmental Auslandsamt, a sum of money. Your elective representatives intervened, raised questions and parted curtains. Grudgingly, the anonymous they’s gave you a passport, not for ten years, but for eight months. But what would have happened to you if the Representatives could not part curtains, since they themselves languished on lists?
But now the they’s have gotten a lot smarter. Their machines hear more, pluck it out of the ether, record it and compile it for future reference. The people in power are renewing the old game of looking for political enemies. This was always the case in most of the countries in the world. East Germany comes to mind. There, one chose one’s friends carefully, you laughed together over food, but quietly. Important information was exchanged in lowered voices in a modest greenhouse, while you admired the host’s crop of English cucumbers, a luxury in his gray country. And yet, it did not matter. There were always ways to coerce one friend against another. Inform, they would murmur, or your daughter cannot attend the university. A harmless bargain, citizen.
And yet writers kept writing, books were banned, and the few contraband copies, hidden from the censors, traveled from hand to hand, until they grew stiff from Scotch Tape and were held together by rubber bands.
You write a letter on behalf of a writer held in solitary confinement in Azerbaijan. He was critical of his government, and so they arrested him and gave him nine years. He is not allowed to see his wife and children. He has tuberculosis. You hope your letter will help stone-faced men decide to let him go. You argue that a government wins more respect by not imprisoning writers. But governments have trouble hearing this. That is because its ministers are also afraid. You wonder whether this writer, if he survives, will one day have to write a letter for you. To a camp in Cuba or a salt flat in Utah.
And so the question is can a writer write when he is afraid, when he knows they’re listening? Can a storyteller tell stories? Stories that warm the heart, or give hope, or speak of love? How brave they must have been, the writers in the time of dictatorship, who have written at the peril of ending up in a cold, small cell without light, cut off from those they love and who love them.
I know this is dark. I am sorry, but the banality of evil seems to be on the upswing, and storytellers must write about it.