Günter Grass and the free speech moment

A travel ban is still censorship.

Over the past few days, a "free speech moment" has been unfolding. These are the controversies where we get to discuss the first principles of free expression, and they usually begin when someone does something extremely offensive. Think of the public trolling of Anjem Choudry, or the English Defence League.  Think of Liam Stacey, charged with a criminal offence for tweeting. Think of every controversial columnist, paid by the newspapers to be politically incorrect. These moments are frustrating, but at least campaigners like me are asked to make the case for free expression afresh, on sites such as this one.

This week, the "free speech moment" has had both an historical and international flavour. Günter Grass, the Nobel Prize Winning German author, angered the Israeli government after he wrote a poem about their militarism.  Israel, incensed that a former conscript in the Waffen-SS should write such a criticism, responded by placing a travel ban on the author.  In the most recent twist, Grass has escalated the controversy by likening the Israeli government’s actions to those of the East German Stasi.

There are two unresolved issues here.  The first is whether a travel ban (declaring Grass a persona non grata, unwelcome should he wish to visit Israel again) is censorship.  Clearly, such a move is less severe than the formal banning of Grass’s books; and many authors around the world (for example, in Iran, which was cited in the poem) suffer imprisonment for their transgressions. Nevertheless, placing this restriction on a person, purely because of what they have written, is a form of censorship.

It prevents any Israeli citizens who happen to agree with Grass’s poem (and I am sure there are many, from every religion) from inviting him to speak. It precludes the possibility that those in Israel who enjoy Günter Grass’s oeuvre would ever have the chance to meet him at a literary event.  A voice is suppressed. Until recently, the UK Border Agency were in the habit of denying authors and artists entry to the UK because a gallery opening or a book tour was considered a form of "work". English PEN campaigned for reform of the system on the basis that freedom of expression also includes freedom of information, the right to hear dissenting voices. A travel restriction on an author denies this freedom, which makes it undemocratic.

Such bans also have a "chilling effect" on other writers – will authors who regularly visit Israel now self-censor, if they hold opinions that the Israeli government doesn’t want to hear?

The second issue is over Günter Grass’s actual words, including his latest ‘Stasi’ interjection? These "free speech moments" are frustrating because defending someone’s right to say something is usually equated with defending the content of what they say. Those whom the speaker has offended are always ready to conflate the two issues. We should remember that the oft-cited Tallenter quip on free speech (“I hate what you say, but defend to the death your right to say it”) also works perfectly well in reverse: I defend Günter Grass’s right to say things . . . but I hate what he says. The writer Kenan Malik goes further, and makes the point that if one vigorously defends free expression, one also has a moral duty to retort when people say unpleasant things.

I don’t think that Günter Grass is saying abhorrent things, though in my opinion he has been deeply insensitive. His last comment is clearly a doubling-down, and the result is polarising. His poem, despite taking on the form of introspection, has not persuaded anyone that was not already of his point-of-view. For such an accomplished writer, celebrated for his turn of phrase, this is a shame. The great power of poetry and prose is their ability to help the reader empathise with someone of a different culture or history. Personally, I think Grass is capable of this, and should have written a different poem.  But to say this is an act of literary criticism, not a statement of the principles of free speech.

Robert Sharp is head of campaigns & communications at English PEN

Silenced? Günter Grass Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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The Gallows Pole's ultra-violence turns reading into a kind of dare

Author Benjamin Myers's capacity for the grotesque is constantly threatening to breach your tolerance of it.

Here is a tip for the squeamish when reading a Ben Myers novel. Imagine the worst thing that could happen to the characters, and then drop the book, because whatever Myers has imagined will definitely be worse than your version. The Gallows Pole is Myers’s sixth novel, and its territory is recognisably his own.

A northern, rural setting: here, the Yorkshire moors. An inspired-by-true-events story: this time, the Cragg Vale Coiners, a notorious ­late-18th-century gang of forgers. And a profane lyricism punctuated by the kind of ultra-violence that turns reading into a kind of dare. As in Ted Hughes’s Crow poems or David Peace’s Red Riding sequence, Myers’s capacity for the grotesque is constantly threatening to breach your tolerance of it.

“People will always need walls. Boundaries are what makes us civilised,” Myers has an itinerant “waller” say here. But the author is interested in what happens when those boundaries are uncertain, or broken. Beyond our self-created limits, there is a wildness both dreadful and transfixing, and David Hartley – the King of the Coiners – is its avatar here.

When we first meet him, we are told that he “appeared of the earth, of the moors. A man of smoke and peat and heather and fire, his body built for the hills.” A man of viciousness and visions, who sees stagmen dancing on the moors.

That relationship between man and land (and it is men, because Myers’s world is ­intensely masculine) is about to be ruptured for ever. The Industrial Revolution is coming. Ground that was a birthright to the labourers and farmers of Yorkshire is being bought up for factories; capitalists are even re-carving the waterways. Hartley and his men will take no share in the wealth this generates. They are the left-behind, and in this context, forging is not merely theft: it’s insurrection.

“Clip a coin and fuck the crown” is the Coiners’ cry. Their attack on the currency is also an attack on the nation state attempting to impose its rule on the countryside. Money is a circulating manifestation of the social contract, passing the impress of authority from hand to hand, and Hartley wants none of it.

The government takes their threat absolutely seriously and sends the relentless exciseman William Deighton (or “that cunt Deighton”, as Hartley inevitably calls him) after the gang. It is clear from early on that Hartley and Deighton, bound by mutual hate long before they ever meet, are willing themselves to destroy one another. Coercion and rebellion mirror each other, drawing purpose from their opposed positions.

Although the setting is historical, Myers’s obsession with place and power is urgently contemporary. Society is fragile. The walls can, and do, collapse.

Today the political shocks of Brexit and Trump make this obvious in a way it hasn’t been for a long time: the strand of malevolent machismo that seemed like deliberately shocking Gothic in Myers’s 2014 novel Beastings feels closer to home now. It seems as though Myers, seer-like, has merely had to wait for the world outwardly to become as he long ago divined it to be. Yet that is not to say there is no invention here, and Myers’s use of language in particular is notably creative.

The story is told between terse, third-person portions, and Hartley’s diary entries are written in a rich pidgin of semi-literacy. It resembles more than anything the dense, punning future dialect of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker; and like that novel it suggests a society where the bonds are so frayed that even words are unreliable. But where Hoban can fairly claim use of any word ever to have existed, Myers’s playfulness sometimes presses at the edges of his historical fiction: when Hartley writes “foghorn concollusion” for “foregone conclusion”, for example, the maritime vocabulary is jarring coming from this landlocked man.

Foregone conclusions are a problem in another way. Even if you don’t already know about the Coiners, Myers foreshadows the story’s end well in advance, and the plot occasionally sags.

Though his general register is frankly abrasive, Myers sometimes sacrifices tension to sentiment in the lead-up to a set piece: when a character has an unusual access of tenderness, you can hear death stalking in the background. Another weakness of his is in writing women and children – the latter tend to the syrupy and the former barely exist.

In The Gallows Pole, if a character isn’t likely to raise a hand in anger, he isn’t likely to interest Myers. His element is violence and, in his element, he is thrilling: intelligent, dangerous and near untouchable.

The Gallows Pole
Benjamin Myers
Bluemoose Books, 363pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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