CULTURE

Harry Mulisch: A writer’s job is always to produce good books

«It was an ecstatic moment. My life had acquired a skeleton,» said Dutch author Harry Mulisch, describing his realization that he had become a writer. Yet what was to be his lifelong vocation had never been his ambition, he told the press in Athens on Tuesday. Mulisch, who was in town to appear at a Megaron Plus event organized by the Athens Concert Hall and the Dutch Embassy, expanded on his life and work. Born in 1927 in the Netherlands to a Jewish mother and an Austrian father who collaborated with the Nazis to save his family, the acclaimed writer said the «paradoxes» of fate inspire his stories. An optimist by nature and experience, he said, «The war was a time of hope for liberation, which eventually came, and not just from the Nazis but from teachers as well.» Though delighted when expelled from school, Mulisch was at a loose end, earning a little by posing as an artist’s model. «One day I went past a house and heard piano music; I saw nobody inside, just books. Then I had an idea of writing a story about a boy who goes by the house on his bike every day and does this. He eventually returns later and rents the room, which he realizes is the room in which he’ll die. I published the story and became a writer, because of music. My whole career has been marked by sudden ideas.» Mulisch expresses wry humor at life’s absurdities, even the cruelest. The yellow card that the racial law forced Jews to carry in occupied Holland listed their Jewish grandparents: «The Nazis were mathematicians. Those with four Jewish grandparents were destined for arrest and extermination; those with three were not much better off.» Those with two, like the author, were «too Jewish to be sent to a work camp, but not Jewish enough to kill,» as he found on one chilling occasion when he and a friend in the same position – «we used to say the two of us together made one whole Jew» – were illegally at the cinema when it was raided. «They let me go and took away all the others.» He rejects the notion of writer as activist. Asked what the role of the writer is in the 20th century, he responded emphatically, «The same as it was in the 17th century: to write good books.» Asked to comment on Harold Pinter’s highly political Nobel acceptance speech, Mulisch said: «Pinter can say what he likes, but he says more in his plays. A writer doesn’t change public opinion with what he says but how he says it.» Though his life has spanned many great events, Mulisch never undertakes to write about them for their own sake. «I was in Dresden after the war but I’m not a journalist. For me there always has to be something creative added.» At the Megaron that evening in conversation with Greek writer Christos Homenidis, he expanded on the theme. «I’ve experienced some terrible things and some good things, but I never try to write about them. An amateur who writes a poem writes about his feelings, but a poet feels the poem. A good poem is about itself. Kafka writes about a trial but the story tells us about Kafka.» Seven of Mulisch’s books have been translated into Greek for Kastaniotis by Ino Van Dyck-Baltas, who also made the selection for the latest «O Prostatevomenos» (The Protege), a collection of short stories written from 1948 to 1990.