Thursday, April 27, 2006

Literary Rock Stars

My brain feels like it has been honed with the elegant precision of a pencil sharpener. For I have spent these last two days listening to world literary rock stars strut their often brilliant ideas in front of us adoring fans.
The theme of this year's Pen World Voices is "Faith and Reason". Nothing could be more timely or more apt because everybody with a brain between their ears is in mortal fear of the turn towards theocracy and fundamentalism that seems to be gripping the world. And if they are not afraid yet, it is about time they start shaking.
For starters, yesterday night at Town Hall was like the Woodstock of Literature, with writers from all corners of the planet. The one who made the biggest impression on me was E. L. Doctorow and I hope that the amazing speech he wrote for the occasion will be printed and distributed for everyone to read.
He must have made the biggest impression too on Martin Amis and Patrick McGrath since they chose to open their conversation today with something that Doctorow said, something along these lines: Doubt is the great civilizer, not faith, not unshakable absolute conviction. He then went to explain in the most clear, precise and eloquent language why the current trend towards fundamentalism in American political life is anathema to democracy. It is in fact, due to democracy and to the great legacy of religious freedom bestowed to us by the Founding Fathers of the USA.

In this country, people show much too much respect for God and too little for themselves, if you ask me.
I get the feeling that when someone reveals they are atheists, as Nadine Gordimer did in her note read by Salman Rushdie, there is always this weird little hush in the crowd, as if people are somehow afraid to displease or disrespect God, when in fact there should be a growing cheering section with tambourines and tubas. I clapped as I heard Rushdie convey Ms. Gordimer's message and was the only one. A couple brave souls followed suit because Mr. Rushdie kept saying "ain't that the truth" (he is utterly charming).
We needn't be so afraid of God; we need to be far more outraged about other manmade calamities.
I won't tell you the entire lineup of yesterday's event at Town Hall. Toni Morrison and Zadie Smith got the biggest cheers. In my humble estimation, some writers were more brilliant than others. One that made a powerful impression on me, yesterday and today, was David Grossman from Israel, an outspoken critic of the Occupation and an incredibly intelligent guy.

Martin Amis recounted today that somebody once asked his father whether he was an atheist. The answer was (delivered by Mr. Amis with impeccable comic timing) "Well yes, it's more that I hate Him".
Amis said that he was in the atheist fringe of the agnostic, waiting rather impatiently for scientific confirmation that God indeed does not exist. He also said that notwithstanding poverty, injustice, plagues, wars, the endless catalogue of human suffering, the reason why he doesn't believe that God really cares about us is because if he did, he would not have given us religion. And that with belief in a higher power there is no free will. I have always been a huge fan of his sharp, elegant, wit, and now I'm drooling. Today he was impish, brilliant, eloquent and brave and refreshingly politically incorrect. I don't think American audiences are used to listening to people call it like they believe it is, without trying to finesse anybody's sensibilities. Amis claimed that Islamism (not Islam) is irrational and against reason and there were audible gasps from the audience. He has a complex, rational, pragmatic and morally outraged point of view that is much more nuanced than the wholesale USA is Evil and the Muslims are just reacting bullshit. Also, he does not speak out of his ass. He has immersed himself in learning about Islam and seems to know what he's talking about. Besides, he made me immensely happy because he dumped on Jose Saramago, because Saramago said that suicide bombers use their bodies because those are the only weapons they have and all that idiotic crap. God Bless Martin Amis.
There will be further dispatches from my literary groupie stint. But now, I'm going out for a stiff drink.

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