SEPTEMBER 13, 2011

Thank you Serbian PEN! Thank you Vida and thank you to all of your members. You have organized a wonderful Congress. People who attend have no idea how much work is involved and how many hours are taken up that could have been used for writing. So, a very personal thank you from all of us who have come from other countries.

Quand nous disons  – nous les membres du PEN International – que nous sommes l’évocation de la littérature et de la liberté del’expression, et que les deux ne se séparent pas  –  c’est une simple déclaration des faits.

C’est notre 90ème année. Nous sommes – nous avons toujours été – la seul organisation véritablement internationale de la littérature. Nous avons inventé l’idée et la réalité des campagnes pour la liberté d’expression.

Quelquefois il faut répéter l’évident. Il y en a des gouvernements, des pouvoirs – ceux que George Konrad, un de nos anciens présidents, appelle ‘’les professionnels du pouvoir’’, qui disent : Ah, ce ne sont que des écrivains, que des mots. Et c’est vrai, nous n’avons pas de chars ou de banques ou le pouvoir de porter un déficit gigantesque ou un grand bureaucracy. Mais si nous sommes que des écrivains, pourquoi est-ce que quelques 850 de nos collègues sont en prison autour du monde ? Pourquoi est-ce que on tue des écrivains avec une régularité terrifiante ? Nous avons ce grand pouvoir qui est celui de la langue et de l’imagination – à travers les poèmes, le théâtre, les romans, les essais – qui libère l’esprit des lecteurs. C’est avec des mots de l’imagination que l’individu travaille.

Yesterday, I was asked – quite rightly – what difference does it make that writers from 89 PEN centres are gathered in Belgrade. It is the right question.

The first answer is that this Congress is a public expression of reconciliation. Of course, writers in the Balkans have never stopped talking to each other. But, this Congress is a formal evocation of the imagination of the Balkans.

Today, the leaders of 10 Balkan PEN centres sat together on a stage and created the Balkans PEN International Network. The founding members are Bosnian PEN, Bulgarian, Croatian, Kosovar, Macedonian, Montenegrin, Romanian, Serbian, Slovenian and Turkish. This is an historic event. It is a message to the world.

Second, the gathering of hundreds of writers from around the world matters because it is a force for imagination and transparency. Our charter is clear. We believe in unlimited freedom of expression. But we also believe that no matter how controversial or difficult our words are, the ultimate purpose is to bring people together. The great Serbian Canadian writer, David Albahari, has rightly written that “knowledge can never catch up with the power of ignorance”. This is true. But the imagination can catch up. Imagination can leap over ignorance. Let me give you an example: When a virtually unknown radio journalist is killed in Mexico – the most dangerous place in the world today to be a writer – they leave, in Ivo Andrić’s words, “a memory clearer and more lasting than that of so many other more important victims”.

This year our former President, Mario Vargas Llosa, won the Nobel Prize for literature. And the founding president of our Independent Chinese PEN Centre, Liu Xiaobo, won the Nobel Peace Prize. Two men of courage. Two masters of the imagination. One of whom remains unjustly in prison. And several of our centres were central to what is called the Arab Spring. In some cases they are now a key part of the rebuilding civil society in their country.

The core of what we do is this: imagination and the transparency that imagination creates, and the acceptance of complexity – all of this is above politics and below politics. It’s everything except politics. In a society without this democracy of the mindit becomes possible for lies to install themselves, as if they were language. And as Danilo Kiš put it, “when everyone lies, no one lies”.

We are in the business of open memories, memories that do not oppose people, one against the other. We represent an open idea of how people can live together.

This is the 77th Congress. The Congress in 1933 in Dubrovnik was organized by this Centre. It was a complex, but historic moment for PEN. We were faced by the rising forces of authoritarianism, even within our own centres. The divisions of European society had become the divisions of PEN. Our President, a great writer, H. G. Wells, but also an anti-Semite with confused public views, found himself caught in an atmosphere of impossible divisions. But, complex though it was, Wells and the delegates found their way through in order to stand with the imagination and transparency and therefore against authoritarianism.

In 1933 we found an ethical shape – long before governments took a stand. And at every PEN Congress since 1933, those ethical standards stand before us as the measure of what we do. I like to think that in leading with wisdom in Dubrovnik, Wells found his own way to a personal understanding of PEN’s ethics. It was a noble moment for him and for PEN.

There are always those who believe that writers can be dragged away from their independence in the public place. And I believe that the next few years will be difficult. There are many strong and negative forces at work. But the meaning of PEN is simple. Our central ethical force is the independence of our imagination and our creativity. And we know what this means because for 90 years we have defended that independence.


John Ralston Saul Delivers The Opening Speech At The 77th PEN International Congress In Belgrade