CULTURE

You’re persona non grata, Mr Shakespeare!

Just a few days before the historic European Union summit meeting in Athens last week, while Greece was inevitably the focus of international attention, the Athens Association of Publishers and Booksellers (SEBA) decided to make its own foreign policy. The association’s board of directors announced on April 9 that it was canceling Britain’s participation in the 26th annual Book Fair, to begin on May 9 at the Pedion tou Areos. The reason: Britain’s collaboration in the war on Iraq. SEBA has drafted a kind of dogma of collective responsibility, naively substantiated in a mournful, moralistic-sentimental tone which, roughly interpreted, goes as follows: «How can we Greeks, ‘who have conducted such a great struggle for our national independence,’ mix with the Britons who, along with the Americans, invaded Iraq ‘trampling on the national sovereignty of an independent state.’» To soften the blow, it adds that there would be serious problems for the safety of the guests. Let’s examine each move carefully, step by step, because the ground is mined and it’s easy to be accused of being pro-American or a warmonger. But no matter how we summon up anti-war vehemence, we can’t find any logical connection between Prime Minister Tony Blair and playwright Harold Pinter, writers Ian Rankin and Andrew Miller (the last two were to have come to the Greek fair). Should we attribute SEBA’s action to lack of information? Apparently the association hasn’t heard of the reactions of British writers, artists and intellectuals, who declare every day and in every way their opposition to the war. Apparently, they don’t care that English theaters are staging shows which mock the political leadership and its choices concerning the people of Baghdad. Nothing is good enough for SEBA. Not even Pinter’s fear that «if he got close to Blair he might spit in his eye.» And Pinter is a classic example. He speaks out with spirit, daring and rage, often paying the price for it. Had they perhaps seen Ian McEwan applauding the approach of British troops, or Doris Lessing expressing approval of her country’s policies? No. It was a blind attack, as fanaticism is bound to be. SEBA had to do battle beyond the bounds of seriousness and objectivity. It had to treat English literature as a threat to its democratic principles, and ask for a certificate of good political conduct from each of its guests. Thus it painlessly eliminated the unfortunate (sic) inspiration of the moment, the possibility of two cultures meeting for a few days, becoming reconciled, sharing ideas, thoughts and views. It is not the loss of the meeting that is infuriating, but the loss of moderation; the demand – and the power – of a board of directors to exercise foreign policy, because that is what it is all about. International news agencies broadcast the news and the announcement by the British Council’s director: «The British Council believes in dialogue and the exchange of ideas, so we are sorry that the Athens Book Fair has withdrawn its invitation to Britain. But we do understand and respect their feelings.» I wonder, when SEBA drew up its decision, whether it had Macbeth’s answer in mind? «It will have blood, they say. Blood will have blood / Stones have been known to move and trees to speak / Augurs and understood relations have / By magot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forth / The secret’st man of blood. What is the night?» Any time… But wasn’t Shakespeare English? That poetic response seems suspect to me…