Writers are the last people we should look to for moral clarity


CULTURE SHOCK:Accusations that Milan Kundera collabarated with the secret police invite us to re-examine our view of writers

IN THE FIRST chapter of Milan Kundera's novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the theme of memory and amnesia is everywhere. There is the image of the Czechoslovak Communist leader, Gottwald, haranguing a crowd in Prague as he declares the party's takeover of the state. His comrade Clementis, worried about the biting cold, takes off his own fur hat and places it on Gottwald's head. Four years later, after Clementis is hanged as a so-called traitor, he is airbrushed out of the photographs of the historic declaration and all that remains of him is that hat.

The protagonist Mirek, a dissident, takes from this his motto: "The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting." But the novel immediately goes on to complicate this sense of memory, and to ask whether it is as simple as restoring an image that has been deleted. Mirek remembers an old girlfriend crying about the death of a Soviet leader, "A certain Zhdanov, Arbuzov, or Masturbov", whose death seemed to move her even more than that of her own father. "Could that really have happened? Isn't it merely his present-day hatred that has invented those tears over Masturbov's death? No, it had certainly happened. But of course it's true that the immediate circumstances which had made these tears real and believable baffled him now, and that the memory had become as implausible as a caricature."

What is also almost as implausible as a caricature, or indeed as a bad parody of a central European novel, is that Kundera himself has now been caught in this same morass of memory. Kundera has been confronted with secret police documents that identify him as the source of the tip-off that led to the arrest in 1950 of a young pilot who was acting as a western agent. The novelist himself has denounced the release of the information as "the assassination of an author" and declared the presence of his name on the file "a mystery".

But the episode could hardly have been better chosen to illustrate the tension in The Book of Laughter and Forgettingbetween the imperative to remember on the one hand and the way, divorced from the circumstances of the time, that what is remembered may be a hollow caricature.

This outing of writers for their collaborations with power has become a constant background noise in contemporary culture. George Orwell listed writers as "crypto-communists". Crista Wolf was a Stasi informant. The great Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski gave some information to the secret police in return for the visas he needed to write his dazzling reports. Most shockingly, Günter Grass, the pre-eminent explorer in fiction of Nazism and its legacy, outed himself in 2006 as a teenage volunteer for the Waffen SS. And now, Kundera, a symbol of artistic resistance to totalitarianism, has, rightly or wrongly, been drawn into the swamp of memory and forgetting.

The problem with a lot of this is that it does little justice to the nature either of memory or of literature. What emerges from a secret policeman's files is not a historic truth. It is a fragment of a now-broken information-gathering machine, a disconnected shard of a past that cannot really be recovered. Secret policemen are not all-knowing gods whose word is gospel. They are functionaries with agendas that are partly political and wholly bureaucratic. And even if they're telling a part of the truth, the vestiges of their operation tells us little about the circumstances in which someone "collaborates". Were they willing spies or frightened victims? Were they weak, or were they arrogantly playing games, thinking that they could fool the system? The deep moral ambiguity of life under totalitarianism cannot be captured by a policeman's dutiful list of names.

Moral outrage also misses the nature of literary creativity. To be shocked that Grass lied about his youth or that Kundera may be lying about what he did 58 years ago is to buy into the discredited idea of writers as our public conscience. For the uncomfortable truth about literature is that morally virtuous people are less likely than morally slippery people to be great writers. Having a clear set of values and sticking to it through trials and tribulations makes for a splendid human being, but seldom for a splendid novel.

In our times at least, deceit, betrayal, confusion and doubt are the stuff of literature. Writers are fuelled by secrets, by guilt, by unresolved tensions between the perfection of art and the imperfection of life. They invent worlds, and words, not to reflect the reality they have lived, but to evade or sublimate or transcend it.

They invent, not by blurting out the truth, but by hovering around it, moving towards and away from it, devising elaborate denials or constructing alternative realities in which the past never happened. The very things that make them interesting writers often make them the last people we should look to for moral clarity. There are exceptions, of course, but they are relatively rare. And there are differences of circumstance. In relatively free societies, writers have the luxury of scratching at intimate personal secrets and private betrayals.

In less free societies, the secrets are more often about power and collaboration, and the betrayals involve real harm to others. If novelists teach us anything it is to be very careful about judging other peoples' frailties. And if novels themselves teach us anything, it is that at their best they achieve a kind of autonomy, not just from the powers that be, but from the hypocrisies of their authors.