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In a Violent World

What with mock disparagement Kundera calls ‘merely a novel’ is of course the crux of the matter. Because what does ‘merely a novel’ or ‘merely a story’ (or merely a poem, merely a play) really mean? It sends us back to the archetypal situation of storytelling: to the thousand-and-one nights; to Scheherazade who, for the duration of those thousand-and-one nights, warded off the threat of violence in the ‘real’ world—in her case the executioner’s blade—by escaping into a different kind of universe altogether, the universe of story, of make-believe, of invention, of imagining.

‘A different kind of universe,’ yes: but in a curious way we are also expected to recognise a sameness: the adventures of Sinbad may appear exaggerated, the story of Aladdin may rely essentially on magic and the supernatural, the tale of the hunchback may seem impossibly convoluted (comprising as it does the tale of the tailor, the tale of the barber, and those of his six brothers, not only succeeding one another but embedded in one another—many of them outrageous, grotesque, bizarre, fantastical… Yet within the collection as a whole (representing perhaps a thousand years of storytelling in many parts of the world), and in each individual tale, we encounter a kaleidoscopic image of precisely that ‘real’ world which Scheherazade was allegedly trying to escape: a real world with power relations of many kinds—political, ideological, economical, sexual, you name it—in which the rich and the poor, the healthy and the sick and the dead, the powerful and the weak, men and women, parents and children, kings and beggars, all have their role to play. Also, the story of the Arabian Nights is not only the stories told by Scheherazade to amuse King Shahriar and save her own life, but the story surrounding her stories as well: the story of her relationship with the king, of the love that develops between them, of her relationship with her sister Doniziade, of the three children they bring into the world while the stories continue to flow. Much of this surrounding tale remains submerged, subsumed in Scheherazade’s narration, but a remarkable amount of it can be brought to light, almost literally ‘between the lines.’ And in this way the “Thousand and One Nights” becomes the story of the whole culture (or indeed the several cultures) from which it sprang. In what starts as the seemingly random, private, subjective inventions of the young woman an entire culture may recognise its likeness. The story, and all the stories within that story, become a house of mirrors in which Self and Other meet and merge, altering both in the process. At the end of her thousand-and-one nights Scheherazade is no longer the seemingly callow young girl who responded to the summons of her king; nor is Shahriar the patriarchal, omnipotent male he was initially. By discovering each other they also discovered themselves. And that was why the violence in the kingdom could eventually make place for a new awareness of the scope, the freedom, and the responsibilities of peace.

In my own country, South Africa, the terrifying real world of violence and racial strife under apartheid became a demonstration of the darkest and most destructive impulses of humanity. The metaphorical executioner’s blade posed a threat to the whole of society. But the voice of the storyteller intervened. And while black and white found themselves in violent opposition, artists of all kinds—painters, musicians, dancers, actors, playwrights, poets, storytellers—discovered a unity and a solidarity among themselves which ultimately helped to destroy apartheid. (The process was of course not due to them alone, but to a multitude of factors—economic and cultural boycotts, trade union action, resistance in the churches and on university campuses, violent and passive resistance…—but without the storytellers (in the widest sense of the word) the ‘South African miracle’ could not have happened. Like the relationship between Scheherazade and Shahriar, the multifarious relationships among artists, and between artists and their audience, constituted in themselves a universe in which peace and understanding became possible.

There was an occasion, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, when a number of writers from all the then recently liberated countries of Central Europe, Africa and Latin America gathered in Salzburg to discuss the changing role of literature in the world. What we found was that after the deliberations of each day we would all gather in the Stube of the castle in which we met and indulge in a very deep nostalgia for the good, bad old days of oppression and persecution, of censorship and zamishdat. Not because a single one of us would, even for a moment, wish to return to that past. But because in those dire circumstances a wonderful sense of solidarity and singleness of purpose was forged among all creative minds working together in a struggle against a single, highly visible enemy; and between writers and their public. In those circumstances literature was not a pastime or a diversion or a luxury, but a vital factor in the life of every day, helping us to make sense in a violent world. We had the feeling of being involved in something much larger than ourselves, which gave purpose and direction to our lives—and the lives of all those caught in the same situation. The friendships and alliances established in those conditions remain among the most precious experiences we have ever had.

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