Czechs thank P.E.N. for help in dark hours

November 12, 1994|By David Rocks | David Rocks,Special to The Sun

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- As recently as five years ago, many Czech writers looked to their colleagues from P.E.N. International for much-needed encouragement, hope and support.

Today, with one of their own sitting as the Czech head of state and artistic freedom in their homeland guaranteed, those same Czech authors and intellectuals are finally able to thank P.E.N. for helping them through darker times.

"Several times in my life I have had the honor of being invited" to a P.E.N. congress, said Czech President Vaclav Havel -- a noted playwright and essayist -- in greeting members of the literary organization at their annual meeting in Prague this week. "But the regime always made it impossible for me to attend.

"I had to live to the age of 58, go through a revolution in my country, become the nation's president and see the World Congress held in Prague to be able to participate in this important event for the first time in my life."

P.E.N. stands for "Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists and Novelists." The group, which was founded in 1921 to promote world peace through international contact among writers, for many years championed the cause of authors in the Soviet bloc.

"Five years ago, in this book the key cases were those of Vaclav Havel and other Czech writers," said Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, chair of P.E.N.'s Writers in Prison Committee, as she thumbed through a pamphlet that outlines the cases of more than 500 writers around the world who have been imprisoned, detained, attacked or threatened. "Today they're running the country and the P.E.N. congress."

Most delegates say they are delighted with the work their organization did to help writers in Soviet bloc countries and are pleased that P.E.N. contributed to the end of totalitarianism there. Now, they say, it is time to move on.

"The persecution of writers continues, and there are more imprisoned writers now than there were five years ago," said Ivan Klima, a novelist and vice president of the Czech P.E.N. Club. "In Asia, Africa, Latin America, Vietnam, China, there are hundreds of writers who are in danger -- in danger for their lives."

While there is wide agreement that the organization should continue to support writers who are imprisoned or harassed -- especially in countries with authoritarian governments -- there is less of a consensus on what the role of writers and intellectuals should be in developed, democratic societies.

The issue strikes an especially resonant chord in Prague, where the 1989 "Velvet Revolution" was led by intellectuals -- artists, actors, musicians and writers.

Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, a conservative economist and P.E.N. member, told the congress that artists and writers should work with their governments to create a better society.

"The idea that intellectuals working outside of government institutions are more unbiased is untenable," Mr. Klaus said. "It is irresponsible in that it suggests that intellectuals should, a priori, be against the government or should remain in their ivory towers and not get involved."

The historian Timothy Garton Ash countered that while it was appropriate for intellectuals to lead the Czech revolution, the time has come for them to work independently of those in power.

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