Christine Madden

journalist | editor | dramaturg | literary translator

Month: February 2017 (page 1 of 2)

‘The Cassandras in the world are never asleep’

Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka – playwright, poet, ‘anatomist of the workings of power’ – shows a Munich audience he is still well able to pounce

Wole Soyinka, speaking at the Munich Security Conference, 17 February 2017. Photograph: Christine Madden

THE BUZZ in the lecture hall in the Literaturhaus München becomes more subdued as the minutes tick by – Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, scheduled to speak as part of the Munich Security Conference, is late. The audience were told yesterday that he was flying in from Los Angeles. Is the flight delayed? Or – in this age, one can’t help leaping to drastic worst-case scenarios – had something more sinister happened?

He arrives then, to enthusiastic applause, flanked by the deputy director of the MSC. It appears that Soyinka’s arrival occurred at the same time as “our chancellor’s” and in the worldwide political pecking order, her security took precedence. (It is, after all, a security – not a literary – conference.)

Literally an éminence grise with his eye-catching shock of white hair, Nobel laureate Soyinka explains what sets Cassandra and her heirs apart: “listening to the quiet, hearing the sounds of danger”. Soyinka has been speaking and writing with her voice for decades – he was imprisoned for using it in the 1960s when the government interrogated then imprisoned him for almost two years. He also criticised the 20th-century concept of “négritude”, current among intellectuals using it to oppose a mentality of colonial racism. Being deliberately outspoken about their ethnicity did not give Africans power but put them on the defensive. “A tiger does not proclaim his tigritude, he pounces,” he stated. Most recently in Africa, Soyinka says, “the voice of Cassandra was heeded” when former Gambian president Yahya Jammeh was finally forced to step down after repudiating the results of an election he did not win.

Again he used that voice – the result of experience, of human knowledge, the practice of integrity – in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall. He relates how then French president Mitterrand convoked a conference of Nobel prize laureates. Asked for his opinion, Soyinka said that one of the few scientific principles he had retained from his schooling was that nature abhors a vacuum. The eastern bloc had crumbled. Had the rest of the world thought about what would take its place? “I think,” he told them, presciently, “it will be religious fundamentalism.” Only a few weeks later, the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran issued the fatwa against writer Salmon Rushdie for the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses. It was, as he explained, the first act to show the militancy, the disregard for humanity and lack of conscience of a movement that has now ascended to be the issue of our era.

‘What you call an enemy is very important’

“People say there was no warning,” Soyinka challenges, “but there is always a warning. The Cassandras in the world are never asleep.” He cites two examples in 20th-century literature in which her voice was loud and clear. Max Frisch’s The Fire-Raisers (also known as The Arsonists) describes how a normal, seemingly innocent lodger takes over the house of a bourgeois family until he and his cohorts have taken it over turned it catastrophically upside down. In Eugène Ionesco’s The Rhinoceros, we see the effect of “peer pressure, wanting to conform”, says Soyinka. “Do I want to stand out? Oh, my neighbour, his children are already grow their horn,” he quips. You wouldn’t want to cause a disruption or make them feel bad. These plays offer a stark depiction of how easily the moral framework of society is disrupted to a point at which it can’t be reversed without cataclysmic struggle. “What greater warning do we want from literature?” he asks.

To do that, you have to oppose power with freedom, not bow before it in submission. “And what you call an enemy is very important,” he warns. He mentions the western use of the names Isis or Isil to describe the Islamic fundamentalist movement in the Middle East with scorn. They are not a state, he insists; to give them that name gives them a status, credibility. In the Middle East, in Africa, they are called Daesh. The Cassandras of this world refuse to show deference to those who control with force, with submission, with domination. “You have to show them your contempt,” he says. “If we listen to Cassandra, we can escape becoming rhinoceroses.”

 

 

‘Doomed to be a writer’

David Grossman appears in the first of a series of talks – The Cassandra Phenomenon – during the Munich Security Conference

Israeli author David Grossman speaking at the Munich Security Conference. Photograph: Christine Madden

‘WE CAN ALL IDENTIFY with the horrible experience of Cassandra,” says Israeli writer David Grossman at Munich’s Literaturhaus on 16 February. You come to feel that you’re in a dream, and it would be so easy for you to believe that you are the insane one. What, he asks, can literature do in such a chaotic world? “I’m afraid, very little.” He pauses, then continues: “Yet, quite a lot.”

This inaugural inclusion of literature in series of talks at the 2017 Munich Security Conference was suggested by Dr Jürgen Wertheimer, professor of contemporary German and international literature at the University of Tübingen. A welcome and prescient addition – particularly under the aegis of Cassandra, who didn’t fare particularly well as the harbinger of bad but accurate predictions in a world gone mad. In introducing the writers of this series – Grossman at the start, with Wole Soyinka and Hertha Müller to follow – Wertheimer contributes to the discussion with his broad knowledge of literature, quoting Ingeborg Bachmann – “Writing with my burnt hand about the nature of fire” – as well as Turkish prime minister Erdoğan – “Some books are more dangerous than bombs”. Grossman, like Soyinka, Müller and other wise voices in the dark, is “doomed to be a writer,” says Wertheimer, “doomed to truth and reality, doomed to observe something other than the mainstream”.

Grossman – who, as Wertheimer says, share’s Kafka’s fate of being recognised worldwide but shunned in his own country – spoke movingly of the current political chaos in the world today. He vividly exemplifies the image of writing about fire with a singed, even still smoking hand as a voice calling out in Israel for a two-state solution when the current political wind is blowing against him – fanning the flames. The Israeli-Palestinian dispute has gone on for so long that people are acting against their existential ideal, he reasons. “We are limiting our ability to free ourselves from the trap of the conflict.” Without the two-state solution, “Palestinians will never get sovereignty; Israelis will ruin with our own hands the miracle that created their country.”

‘Maybe we can write a new story for ourselves’

The tragedy of this perpetual conflict is rendered particularly poignant because of the “existential foreignness, existential homelessness” of the Jewish people. They had succeeded in creating one place in the world that will be a home for them. But, he says, “I don’t have such certainty that Israel will continue to exist. The feeling that you don’t have a future is a terrible thing for a society.”

Writing, however, including his own, can be a liberating influence. “Literature can connect us to a place inside us that recognises truth, what is light, what is darkness, the primal conditions of emotions.” In all his years of observing the often disheartening political process and corrosive conflict, he remains hopeful. “Maybe we don’t have to be stuck in this story,” he says. “Maybe we can write a new story for ourselves.”

Sadly there doesn’t seem to be any mention whatsoever of this outstanding programme on the MSC website. Maybe the hosts and participants agree with Erdoğan. Which is perhaps not a bad thing. Perhaps they, too, realise literature has an explosive power to wield. There’s hope for us all yet.

Memorial for victims of Munich shooting

Munich’s city council has chosen a design for a memorial for the nine victims of last year’s shooting at a Munich shopping centre

Flowers, candles and toys placed in memory of the victims of the shooting at Olympiaeinkaufszentrum in Munich. Photograph: Christine Madden

A design by artist Elke Härtel has been selected to commemorate the nine people who lost their lives at the hands of a lone gunman in front of Munich’s Olympiaeinkaufszentrum in July 2016. The memorial, featuring a living ginkgo tree, will stand opposite the site of the shooting in front of the OEZ shopping centre.

The attack, which took place after 6 pm on 22 July 2016, held the city of Munich in terrified thrall until the early hours of the morning, when the body of the 18-year-old perpetrator, Ali Sonboly, was found in a side street not far from the centre, where he had shot himself. Munich was in lockdown for the duration while police tried to hunt down the perpetrators of what had all the appearance of a terrorist attack. Instead, Sonboly was discovered to have been a loner who planned his attack using a weapon obtained on the dark net.

The tree will be planted in April in readiness for the official opening of the memorial on the one-year anniversary of the shooting. The design visualises the ginkgo encircled by a 2.5 metre-wide, stainless steel ring, partly sunk into the ground. Inside the ring, the names and images of the nine shooting victims will appear. The dual nature of the memorial combines symbols for solidarity, community and eternity (ring) with peace, friendship and hope (gingko).

Thousands of people came to commemorate and mourn the victims of the shooting at Munich’s Olympiaeinkaufszentrum in July 2016. Photograph: Christine Madden

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