Art versus War: an Irish writer in Paris takes heart from a city of culture

Evelyn Conlon: ‘Art allows us – dares us – to let the imagination take the reins, wander to the edge of time or wherever suggests an answer ... to lift us out of the political maelstrom’

 

Dear readers,

An artist friend, Claire Espanel, was showing her work in Paris at the Mac2000 exhibition: spirit-like pieces, including a haunting reaction to the October bus collision in Puisseguin, her home village, in which 43 people died in the sudden inferno of a traffic incident. It seemed a good thing to make the effort to go, place Paris back in the artistic and literary imagination that it usually occupies, to take the line of the punk band Stiff Little Fingers: we’ve walked down dangerous streets before, places where men had guns behind closed doors and the ones on the street were jumpy.

It is also important to sometimes use the poem as a way to ignore, to be able to marvel at the worth of the long view, which is surely what Gérald Foltête, another artist at Mac2000, was doing when he wrote out, with nib and ink, all the words of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and other works.

Art, of all kinds, the written word, the visual, the sound, allows us – dares us indeed – to let the imagination take the reins, wander to the edge of time or whatever other place in the mind suggests an answer. In Graph Review, more than 20 years ago, we decided to ask people to read their favourite piece of work from the Arabic world – it could be fiction, poetry or even science – not just as a protest against the first Iraq war, but to use the literature to remind us of that which was being degraded. We booked a room in Buswell’s Hotel, called the event Linkages, and expected just a few hardy souls to turn out. An hour before we started it was announced that the Birmingham Six had been released; surely the numbers would dwindle even more now? Still we couldn’t be sorry about that. But to our surprise, the room was packed and our hearts felt better, which is no bad thing when your head aches. The work read that night ranged from Nawal El Saadawi to the choice of Abdullah Al-Udhari who was the editor of the Penguin anthology, Poetry of the Modern Arab World, all glorious pieces that lifted our spirits beyond the futility that we felt.

Next stop on my Paris visit was Shakespeare and Company, handily situated on the Seine; first-time visitors are always so grateful for that. This bookshop does a bit of its own spirit lifting, as it has since it first opened its doors. Here is a place that has even more of the touches of Hundertwasser than the last independent bookshop I raved about. You could spend an entire holiday meandering around its bendy corridors. After that it would only be fair to look into Le Procope, open since 1686, the Enlightenment Café, which I think of as Voltaire’s coffee joint, although, mind you, it was also used as a thinking spot by Balzac and Hugo and that formidable woman George Sand, as well as sharing the history of its tables with Robespierre and Danton. Voltaire wrote that “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets”. You could hear the echo of his voice in Paris this week.

All that made me think of the destruction wrought on Baghdad’s Al Muttanabi Street, its boulevard of books, coffee shops, political conversation and, heaven help us all, fun. They say it rained paper when the bombs blew it apart. It’s an interesting thing to wonder if we can actually visit places in our memories: Surely we must be able? Certainly we’ll have to in the case of places like Palmyra. For the moment anyway, although there is good news from Afghanistan, where they are going to try to reconstruct the Bamiyan Buddhas. Remember that, although we never did get back the stained glass windows that Cromwell shattered, we can picture them if we try.

Over at the Centre Culturel, they had just had a full house for How to Keep an Alien, the Sonya Kelly play directed by Gina Moxley. The artists in residence were about to put the tops back on their pens in readiness for the journey home; the Irish class was putting its coat on for a day out; the boy behind the desk, who had been in Le Bataclan when all hell broke loose, was trying to make sense of it, by exercising the distractional black humour that became de rigueur in the North of Ireland for so long. Indeed the shops were operating the distinctly familiar slogan of “your beg please, Modem”, while people talked of “ The Events”, a term that could be twinned quite comfortably with “The Troubles” as ironic examples of understatement. On the way out, the solid doors of Le Centre Culturel remind us that this was a place where refugees were fed and given papers on their ways from the carnage of the second World War.

At the Place de la République impromptu public art was taking its place on people’s cameras. Volunteers were picking their way gently through the commemorative flowers and removing those that really had given up their ghosts, while a few steps away, in protest at not being allowed to march, a striking through-other sculpture of shoes had been laid down by climate change activists. I’m wondering who will move them on and when? This was no ordinary Sunday at this, the place of the public, for there were a lot of conflicting emotions and rationales being played out, and yes, there was tear gas.

I thought of the literary voice of Simone de Beauvoir, that which let us know about the dead bodies of the Algerian War, the one that is still quoted where people speak of the need for writers to tell us the tale before the cleanup has begun, before the stories are demoted to the lowest common denominator. There have been attempts to give the Virgin Mary a human voice but none can come close to the original, the blatant ferocity of Armonía Somers in her short story, The Fall. We need that kind of art to lift us out of the political maelstrom.

Too often now when serious journalists try to put forward reasons in a newspaper they are, with non-thinking speed, accused of giving excuses. In Rachel Seiffert’s novel, The Dark Room, the author can juxtapose stories that would never be allowed to sit in a newspaper. The novel links three tales, with a photographic motif, all of them set in Germany around and after the last world war. She doesn’t, in the beginning, attempt to imagine the nightmares of the camps, but rather tries to understand the bewilderment of the German people when the destruction has done its worst. But the novel is saying something more than what first appears and it takes time to realise that it is attempting to re-connect the war weary with humanity. This happens too with Jane Urquhart’s The Stone Carvers, a book that examines the first World War and the building of Walter Allward’s Vimy Memorial in honour of some 11,000 Canadians. It is a wonderfully rambling tale, showing, among other things, how Canada got lured into the war, despite a citizenry who considered that they had left all that behind, way back there in Europe. But really, when all is said and done, it is a novel about Art versus War. Years after reading that book, I still imagine Allward searching for the perfect stone for the monument, looking for the meaning that art is going to give him, while all the time those around him are gearing up to commit again what he thinks is forever past. But regardless of the future I keep imagining his artistic extravagance and what triumph that can give us.

In a society that jumps on the first bit of news and blows it up to mean something that may not even be remotely true we need serious books more than ever. A decade ago Andrew Keen warned us in The Cult of the Amateur that “what the Web revolution is really delivering is superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment.” He went on to say that the internet was damaging our cultural landscape in that we will “live to see the bulk of our music coming from amateur garage bands, our movies and television from glorified YouTubes, and our news made up of hyperactive celebrity gossip, served up as mere dressing for advertising.” This is what happens he says, “when ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule”.

In pursuit of a novel I once spent a week with an extraordinary group of anti-capital punishment activists in America. At nights when we ended up sharing floor space in schools or church halls we all took to our books as a way of regulating the day’s hearings to a spot that would allow us to sleep. That could be called enjoying the diversionary tactics of art. It could be called not facing up to what is actually happening around you, allowing the imagination to defeat reality. It could indeed.

Jeannette Rankin, who was the first woman to serve in the US Congress and the only legislator to vote against both world wars, said that you could no more win a war than you could win an earthquake. Best perhaps to read our ways through the next erupting chapter.

Evelyn Conlon’s latest novel, Not the Same Sky, is published by Wakefield Press

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