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Talk -About Whatever You Want
by Joel Yanofsky

MONTREAL: By the time the travelling 54th International PEN Congress rolled into Montreal and set up shop in the Bonaventure Hilton Hotel it was already running out of steam. It was probably inevitable and no fault of the organizers.

Canadian PEN split up into Englishspeaking and French-speaking centres in 1982 and there were obvious and unavoidable political reasons for this congress - the first ever held in Canada - being packed up and moved from Toronto to Montreal. Nevertheless, it was a decision that seemed more sensible in theory than in practice. The result, in practice, was a congress that developed a serious case of split personality.

The emphasis in Montreal seemed to be on a more intellectual - and often stuffier - approach to literature. As Jean Ethier-Blais, the president of the Centre francophone canadien, said in his greeting to the delegates: "Everything will be set into motion to project the, image of a dynamic PEN closely bound to the intellectual life of nations."

So while there were panel discussions devoted to craft or "shop talk" in Toronto, there was nothing like that planned here. Instead, the focus was undiluted, entirely preoccupied with weightier issues -everything from censorship to -fbe Rise of Theocracies."

In addition, authors' readings which were a prominent part of the Toronto schedule -were also conspicuous by their absence from the Montreal congress. While events were organized so the public could meet writers, they were spread out in bookstores and libraries across the city. Even then, they were not designed to be readings as much as "encounters." .

According to Ethier-Blais, Montrealers get bored listening to writers read their work. "It's not in our temperament," he said. Ibis was news to a lot of the people at the congress, but it was not as inexplicable as the fact that there were no books anywhere on site or in sight and no way for the public to have access to the work of participating PEN members.

The public part of the congress centred around two busy days of literary sessions or panel discussions, all of which dealt with some aspect of the congress's expansive title, "Me Writer: Freedom and Power." Asit turns out, the literary sessions might just as well have been called: 'Talk About Whatever You Want" because that's what most of the writers did.

'Mat turned out to be for the best. The discussions were much more vigorous and interesting when writers strayed from the proposed theme. Or when they decided to deliver a personal statement instead. That was true of the succinct comments made by Tadeusz Konwicki, an elderly Polish novelist whose work has been banned in Poland. Ultimately, Konwicki had more to say about powerlessness than power:

"I am skeptical about how much literature can accomplish in the fight against fanaticism and totalitarianism. Contemporary writers are often too worried about their self-image. They are afraid to speak up against barbarism outside their own world. At the end of the 20th century, I worry that writers are becoming more confused and frightened."

Compared to rare, heartfelt moments like this, the literary sessions - mainly because of the amorphous nature of the themes that were dealt with - were more academic than inspiring. In fact, they were at their most stultifying when the panelists actually talked about the things they were supposed to talk about. The result was the sort of generalities and assumptions that are precisely what literature is not about.

A better indication of what literature is about took place when "The Next Generation" - a group of 16 young writers who came from places as diverse as Guatemala, New Zealand, Baffin Island, and South Africa - performed. Ironically, it was an event that wasn't even supposed to happen. However, when the .next generation" group arrived in Montreal and discovered they'd been left out of the schedule, they organized their own reading at the last minute, printing up and handing out flyers.

The reading turned out to be the highlight of the congress, showcasing an innovative mix of indigenous, minority, and alternative voices: everything from dub poetry to Zulu songs. It was also one event that attracted the public as well as members of PEN; the audience included Adrienne Clarkson, John Ralston Saul, Nicole Brossard and, seated on the floor at the back of the hall for the two-hour reading, Margaret Atwood. At the end, Atwood said, "I did have another commitment, but I ignored it."

Overall, though, public participation in the Montreal half of the congress was disappointing. Perhaps that's because, at a congress in which the focus was not on famous names and faces anyway, celebrity-spotting was reduced to wondering if the man who looked like Harold Pinter was, in fact, him - it wasn't - or the woman who looked like Anita Desai was her - it wasn't.

Before the congress began, Graeme Gibson, president of the Canadian English-speaking PEN, had explained that diversity was as important to him as loading the guest list with big names. Still, it was odd that many of the internationally known authors who'd appeared at literary sessions or had given readings in Toronto (like Chinua Achebe, Margaret Drabble, Desai, and Pinter) either didn't make the trip to Montreal, or were curiously excluded from the proceedings. Of the more than 600 delegates, guests, and participants attending the Toronto congress only about 350 boarded the train for Montreal.

Also conspicuous by its absence at the Montreal half of the congress was the large contingent of Canadian Englishspeaking authors - more than 100 who were in Toronto. (Most Quebec writers didn't make the trip to Toronto either.) While it's not exactly news that this country remains split along language lines, the irony was that in an organization like PEN, whose charter affirms, above all, that "literature ... knows no frontiers," boundaries were built into the structure of the Canadian congress from the start. One more example of the split personality of the congress and of how the more things change around here, the more they don't change at all.

Of course, there may be a much simpler explanation for the Montreal half of the congress winding down before it got started. 'Mere just may be a limit to how much time writers can spend in each other's company, mingling and sipping champagne at 11:30 in the morning. That's not to mention the limit on how long writers can go on discussing themes as lofty and nebulous as "freedom and power" before they start sounding like politicians.

"I always get upset when writers decide they have a role to play," the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai said. "The only thing a writer has to do is be true to himself. He only has to write about himself in time and place. That makes more sense than carrying placards." It seems that even belonging to an organization as unimpeachably worthwhile as PEN brings out feelings of ambivalence in writers. That's probably for the best, too, and less a reflection on PEN than on the way in which writers operate.

Writing is a solitary act. Writers' organizations and congresses are anything, but. The fact that PEN has been able to reconcile the literary and bureaucratic sides of its own split personality as well as it has is a tribute to its value. It also accounts for its continuing influence.

'Me truth is that the main business of PEN going on in Montreal was going on behind closed doors. That's where more than 20 resolutions were hammered out and presented at a press conference on the final day. The resolutions ranged from expressions of concern to outrage at the way in which writers are being censored, tortured, imprisoned, and murdered in countries like Romania, South Africa, Turkey, China, and Czechoslovakia. Attached to the press release announcing these resolutions was a letter from Vaclav Havel, who'd been barred from attending the congress by the Czechoslovak government. The letter was written on behalf of three of Havel's colleagues who were recently arrested. It summed up the goals and ideals of Canada's first PEN Congress:

"If a single writer in our country is in chains, then there are some links of that, chain that bind us all. And so your public support for these three friends of mine will not just be an act of general humanity, it will be in the interest of us all, in the interest of a free and truly authentic literature, unbound by the agenda of any power."


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