Friday, May 9, 2008

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize: Paul Verhaeghen's speech

There once was a man who got stung by a wasp.
So he threw a stick of dynamite into his neighbor’s beehive.

The man liked honey. So he sat himself down on a lawn chair, waiting for the gooey goodness to be thrown over the garden wall.
Gooey it was, but it was also bright red, and it tasted metallic.

So the man sent his sons over the wall. The few surviving bees attacked the boys and stung them where they could, and then the bees died of their wounds.

The man’s little nephew came by with a picture book, to show the man the difference between honeybees and wasps.
His uncle punched him in the face, and flushed the book down the toilet.

A neighborhood kid rode by on his bicycle. He laughed at the red bumps on the sons’ arms. The man locked him up in the garden shed. That little shit knew more about beekeeping then he led on. The man shoved the garden hose down the child’s throat and kept pumping until the lad collapsed and died.

Then the man pointed the hose at himself.
See, a little water never hurt anybody!
Squeaky clean.
There. Better.
End of story.

Ladies and gentlemen,

When I started writing Omega Minor, in the nineteen nineties, my intent was to write historical fiction. A story about the rise of fascism, a story about the horrors of war, a story about genocide. It is all over, I thought. Long past. Historical fiction.

Of the cardinal mistakes the writer can make, this one is unforgivable: To assume that there is a wall between the world he creates and the world he lives in.
I was translating the novel when the news of Abu Ghraib broke. This was the paragraph I was translating: “What if the terrorist networks and the political reality overlap? What if the violence of the new state is the same as the violence of the vanquished Reich? What if those who liberated the camps fill them up again with ideological adversaries?” It is still possible to shrug one’s shoulders at the news of Abu Ghraib or Blackwater. Bad apples.

But the signs of something bigger are unmistakable. The concentration of all power within the executive branch, the suspension of habeas corpus, the de facto censorship and bullying of the media, the secrecy, the warrantless spying, the trivialization and outsourcing of torture. All is now permitted, we are told, for we are Good, and we fight Evil, and by the very nature of our Goodness, all we do, no matter what it is, is justified, for it is done for Goodness’s sake. Invading a country that never posed a threat, killing at least 83,336 of its civilians , detaining 25,000 of them , building cages on faraway shores for prisoners who, it seems, will never get justice but -- at most -- a verdict. It’s all Good.

It is not.
For instance:
My country has now all but legalized torture, including mock executions, beatings, electrical shocks, forced nakedness, sexual humiliation, the infliction of hypothermia and heat injuries, and waterboarding. This is not the work of a few individuals, a few bad apples. Or if it is, their names are Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, Powell, Tenet and Ashcroft .
This is the twenty-first century. Torture should be as unthinkable as slavery.
In my country, it is not.

These are things you cannot say or write, or you will be branded as “un-American”.
Nobody, in all those years I have lived in the US, has pointed out even this obvious truth: That George W. Bush is now personally responsible for the killing of more Americans than Osama Bin Laden. Let me repeat that: George W. Bush has sent more than 4,000 American soldiers to their deaths, for no reason at all: They were not fighting the terrorists who brought down the Twin Towers; they were not defending America’s liberties; they were not bringing lasting peace to the Middle East; they were not making the world a safer place.
I know this is a lapidary statement. But it needs to be said.
Their families deserve to know why they died.
They deserve to know that power is not the only truth that matters.

I apologize if my statement offends you. If it sounds out of place at a forum like this. But it needs to be said.
In the light of all this, and to avoid supporting the regime with more tax dollars than I already owe them, I have asked the Arts Council England to donate the money associated with the Prize, all 10,000 pounds of it, to the American Civil Liberties Union. Withholding the tax portion of those 10,000 pounds from the US Treasury will shorten the war by a mere eye-blink – its cost is currently 3,810 dollar per second -- but the ACLU can use that money to great effect in their legal battles against torture, detainee abuse, and the silence surrounding it.
We are not immune to history. But neither is history immune to us.
Be diligent, my friends. Do the right thing.
And may we all fare well.

--Paul Verhaeghen, London, May 8, 2008--

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