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Interview with Cypriot writer Hari Spanou

(C) EU

This interview is facilitated by EUPL and funded by the European Union. 

I am posting snippets of my correspondence with Hari as it would give readers an insight into how she crafts her writing.

It has taken me a while to respond as I kept having to return to them over and over again. You write from a point of being deeply immersed in Cypriot history. But it is much more than that. It is almost as if writing The Outpost was essential to address some internal questions that you had. Or perhaps conversations and experiences that you had had and needed to get them out into the open. While doing so, get a sense of the shape and form these long suppressed memories, conversations heard, whispers in families etc. It is almost as if it borders on your fundamental duty and responsibility to leave some kind of documentation of those years.

After reading your words, I realised how little I knew about the history of Cyprus. So, I spent a while reading about your country on the Internet. And every time I gathered some information, I went back to your text from the start. It was only after I had learned a fair bit or at least understood the broad markers of modern history, that I finally began to understand the contours of The Outpost. Till then, it was bewildering. I could not understand the perspectives or where was one to begin reading. Was it at the very beginning or could I start from the middle and then return to the beginning of the document.

Dear Jaya,

I thank you warmly for going into so much trouble to learn enough about the historical context and background of Cyprus in order to make sense of The Outpost!  My mind is full of thoughts, an almost unavoidable consequence of studying your interesting questions!


Born in Cyprus, in 1964, Hari Spanou graduated from the Pancyprian Gymnasium and studied Medicine in Thessaloniki. She works as a physician in Nicosia. From early on her vivid imagination was coupled with writing — she published poems, articles and short stories in literary magazines and newspapers in Cyprus and Greece – she lives in her mind equally as in “reality”. She contemplates that laborious observation, exploring, even imagination is common both in Medicine and Literature; an attempt to comprehend the human condition. She published her first book of fiction Session I – The Dwelling – The Stranger in 2015. It was shortlisted for the Shorts stories and Novella State award. This was followed by a novella Territorial Conditions in 2018 and a novel The Outpost in 2022.  The Outpost was chosen by the Cyprus PEN to represent the country at the EUPL in 2023, where it won a special mention. Her novel is currently being translated into Serbian by the Treći Trg.


Q1. How do you choose your topics to write upon?

I think that the topics choose me, in the sense that I don’t have an outline of a story and start to write. Whenever I tried to do that, and I have tried it three or four times, once I start to write, the story takes its own course, which is totally different from what I had planned or sketched on a big cardboard using different coloured pens. What seems to happen is I start off with something which persistently nags my mind: a scene or a move or a person, which or whom I cannot see clearly. And then, it’s as if writing creates some motion, like the movement of a semitransparent curtain, gradually the forms become more visible, I can imagine a waiter moving towards a young lady sitting outside in a café watching the pigeons feed off a plate left on a nearby table. Thus, the story starts to unfold and then I can try to fit in a dialogue about something that interests me. Sometimes it doesn’t fit at all, like a piece of a puzzle which looks right but isn’t right. I have learned that forcing a piece to fit is not wise. For example, trying to force a fictional character to do what I have in mind, doesn’t always work, sometimes it does but not always. That “resistance” forces me to move in another direction, perhaps bring in another character or make an earthquake happen. Of course, this semi dark cave, that is my mind or any writer’s mind contains some known ideas and many more potential seeds and some deeper cavities which seem completely off bounds. It’s like a game of hide and seek with one’s self. Until now, every time I start off to write a story it becomes an adventure.

Q2. Do you write to be read or do you write to read what you wish to read? 

Actually, I think neither of these two suppositions describes the motive behind my writing. Writing is like an attempt to learn or to approach a particular “unknown” dark box and find out what is hidden in it or what you can invent to hide in it. It feels like a quest or a journey. I publish what I write if I can imagine someone else becoming interested in this journal of the journey.

Q3. How do you write about a war that is in the past when our present times are engulfed in continual conflicts? How do you hear yourself think? 

Let me start with the second part of your question because I think it addresses a very core issue, and by this, I mean the poetics of writing. The analogy that comes to mind is childish, in the literary sense: I imagine the writer like a toddler who has acquired some skills – has formed a “self” but at the same time is overwhelmed by all kinds of stimuli; he perceives impulses from the self (mind and body), the outside world and the world of dreams – the writer like the toddler tries to “weave” all these, to make some sense, to overcome the chaos and create a structure. I presume this is the way that I hear myself think. Consequently, having all this in mind, I would address the first part of your question: this complex dialogue that takes place inside my writer’s mind, between the past and the present gives birth to a “structure”, a “story”.

Q4. How do you speak to individuals who are living in this “post-modernist world”, each one living in his/her own bubble? How do you create that bridge of communication with the younger generation? Has technology impacted the creation of modern literature?

I find myself having different attitudes, which are most probably affected by various factors. Breaking one’s bubble seems to me to be an innate human need. And by that, I mean interact with the environment: people, sentiments, animals, trees, the sky, the universe, ideas, Art. Break free. At the same time, I realize the human need to isolate to search and concentrate on oneself, heal from the trauma of being exposed in the world or focus on a particular matter. What bothers me is doing nothing or being in a state of inertia or being uninterested in anything. I wonder, sometimes, when I fail to communicate with younger people even on a basic level, what goes on in their mind. Sometimes I try to shock or amaze them by showing the unknown, the beauty or the complexity of the world outside. What we, elders, mostly fail to do though, is dare to remove their headphones and their phones for a few days; it seems as if we are, in a way, convinced that it is a deprivation of something vital, like food and water, or shelter or freedom. And that says something about us, the generation, which created the technology which our children and youngsters use.

Creating bridges presupposes that the both sides want to meet, in some way or another. I mean historically bridges were built to be able to move easily from one side of a river or a mountain to another, or because the left bank people were curious to find out, what they saw or imagined would be on the right bank of a river or a mountain.

If we have reached a point in human history at which we have managed to kill the need for human connection, the motive to learn, to create, or the move towards Freedom, which drives towards Rebellion against the Force which enslaves us, then I think what we consider Human history has ended. Whatever follows, will be something else. And I’m not getting signs that it will be better…

Your question about the creation of Modern Literature is interesting but I’m afraid I don’t have anything original to say because I have not read or thought enough on the topic.

Q5. What is the importance of literature? The conversations in The Outpost regarding conflict resolution and separation vs occupation and much else indicate the sensitivity that one needs to employ while using words. Has the English translation been able to accommodate the vocabulary and the sentiments that you wanted to convey in the original language, Greek? What is the significance of creating Art? 

Literature is (alongside Philosophy), I have come to think, one of the best means to learn what humanity thinks, what it imagines and what questions it poses to its self. I think manages to do that more inclusively than Science can.

The question about the words one employs to convey meanings is extremely important. I suppose we can agree that every language is not the same, not in the sense that there are richer and poorer languages but because at each historical phase, language carries the burden of the particular role of the people who use it. This becomes more evident in the language Government agencies and newspapers and the media use in different areas of the world. But it also permeates other forms of language like Literature. I think that the English translation of certain passages could be improved, but it was done for the use by the EUPL jury, so there was not any communication between writer and translator.

Hm, the significance of Art! I think that the best way to find the answer to this question is walk through a museum or a prehistoric site and study the artifacts which humans have created at the dawn of civilization.

Q6. In India, there are writers who may know more than one language, but will choose to write in English. Mostly because they think it gives them access to a larger market of readers. You speak English fluently, at least in the interviews that I have heard, so why do you choose to write only in Greek? 

This particular question has generated multiple thoughts in my mind on various different levels, political and historical not excluded. I feel that I have a long way to go, but let me be candid and share my thoughts as they are at present. Besides sharing a colonial past, India and Cyprus are in many ways completely different; India is vast and rich in resources, a subcontinent, Cyprus is a miniature semi-occupied island one can barely find on the map. However, it’s an ongoing enigma to me that English, besides being today’s lingua Franca, is still in practice an “official” language in India, its everyday use is extensive and so many newspapers and books are printed in English. This makes sense because of the myriad of languages and dialects present in India and the political issues that can stem from this.

My English I good but I have never thought of writing prose in English; to be exact, not up until recently!

The first reason, I guess, is ideological. In Cyprus there is a long and complicated history which originates in the 19th century’s beginning of British colonization – the Greek population’s identity was systemically attacked and disputed, the same happened with its language. The last 63 years of stormy Independence have complicated things even more; language level included. The Greek language and its use in Literature remains a form of resistance to various systemic attempts of corroding our identity… I can understand that this can seem hilarious for foreigners.

The second reason, I guess will make much more sense.

Literature in Greek is Λογοτεχνία from [Λόγος] = speech, discourse, saying, reason and [Τέχνη]= Art, so it is The Art of Writing. I consider Language a fundamental component of Literature. I think that language is not just a means of communication; it is a force which intrinsically carries meanings, memory and history. These factors, I consider crucial in Literature. The word “sea” is “θάλασσα” in Greek, but θάλασσα (thalassa) feels, sounds, smells, tastes different than sea; it’s salty water, I know.

I have been reading translated literature since I was an adolescent. It’s essentially important to me to be able to read Icelandic, Czech, Romanian or Arabic literature. I realize that, on some level, this is a contradiction to what I previously wrote.

Sometimes I feel naïve; an outsider; or ridiculous – yeah, before the EUPL experience, I never thought of markets of readers. Literature crossing boundaries is important.

Q7. Why write in the stream of consciousness style of a man who has been executed? What is it that you hope to achieve by this kind of storytelling? 

Every conscious person who has experienced his death, violent or “peaceful” knows what happened to him. Those who remain ignorant are we, who are still living. Literature and Art in general naturally dwells and grows on the ground of existential exploration. There are two scenes in the Outpost where two dead people have a voice and tell their story. One of them has been executed, the other died of a heart attack. I suppose I’m not the only human, who thinks about death and dying.  So, I think that what I was trying to achieve, is in fact, to shed some light to something which is evident but eludes us. That there is a “missing” part which we attribute to “the missing person” which is “missing” from us, and that is knowledge.

Q8. As a physician, without breaking patient confidentiality, have you been privy to conversations, sharing of memories, anecdotes about missing loved ones or even of the invasion of Cyprus by Turkey and executions in 1974? The Outpost at times sounds like an amalgamation of voices, woven together to tell a story, in as linear a manner as is possible. 

The answer is yes, both as a person and as a physician living on the island for many years, one cannot avoid becoming “exposed” to whispered stories about victims suffering violent deaths and missing persons. Imagine the sotto voce fragments and the odd silence of the thousands of survivors as a sort of background noise… This subterranean issue of the 1510 missing persons, young men, soldiers and civilians, young women, middle-aged people, children, babies, elderlies surrounds and affects practically every extended family. Of course, everyone deals with this in a different way. Since 2006, nearly every Sunday one or more funeral takes place in a church – 743 missing persons have been identified.

Your perception of The Outpost, as an amalgamation of voices, is astonishingly precise… .

Q9. Who are the writers you admire? 

Oh, if you had asked me this question 30 years ago, I would have answered with more ease: I would say out loud: Milan Kundera, Amos Oz, Maro Douka and Günter Grass and definitely poets like George Seferis and Ezra Pound. At this point in my life, some of the classics have surfaced, but also, particular dissimilar books and not writers are most dear to my heart.

Short list:

Homer’s Iiad

Platos’ Phaedros (Φαίδρος)

Giorgos Seferis’ Poems and Essays

Odysseus Elytis’ Poems and Essays

Albert Camus’ L’homme révolté and L’etranger

Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and The Good Terrorist

David Grossmann’s To the End of the Land

Amos Oz’ A Tale of Love and Darkness and Judas

Dan DeLillo’s The Silence and The Names

Paul Auster’s Travels in the Scriptorium and Man in the dark

Maurice Attia’s Trilogy

Kamel Daoud’s Meursault contre etiquette

Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob

Q10. Do you have any Cypriot author/book/literary website recommendations for readers?

The only website I found is Pen Cyprus.  

Disclaimer: This paper was written under the European Union Policy & Outreach Partnerships Initiative with the view to promote European Union Prize for Literature awardees. The publication was funded by the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.

Interview with Sugata Ghosh on OUP India’s Indian Language Publishing programme

I interviewed Sugata Ghosh, Director, Global Academic Publishing, Oxford University Press on their newly launched Indian Languages Publishing Programme.

Please tell me more newly launched Indian Language Publishing programme? Who is the target audience — academics or general readers? How many titles / year will you consider publishing? 

The Indian Languages Publishing Programme was initiated with OUP’s desire to expand its product offerings to an audience whose primary language is not English. OUP’s existence in India as an established academic press spans more than 100 years. In this long span of its existence it has published a pool of formidable authors and widely acclaimed academic and knowledge-based resources. Our only limitation in a diverse country such as ourselves was language –– though we have been doing the dictionaries and in other Indian languages. In a glocalized world however, limiting ourselves is not an option. As readers change, so should publishers. The increasing demand for resources in Indian languages is not so new; the changing economic and socio-political climate has long been the harbinger of this change. Today we are only heeding its call by beginning publications in these languages. In the first phase of the programme, we have shortlisted two major Indian languages Hindi and Bengali, and a basket of our classics for translation into Hindi and Bengali. We aim to hit the market with 12 such titles by January of 2018. Our target is around 15-20 titles per year to begin with.

Does this imply it is a separate editorial team? Will you have in-house translators? Over time will the list expand to include contemporary stories from regional languages?

We currently do not have any extra resource helping us with the programme. We plan to have new editorial members for both the languages, they will be on board by next year, depending on how well the programme takes off. We do not plan to have in-house translators. We are only working with freelancers and individuals and plan to do so in the future. We might collaborate with other publishers to help seek translators and develop the translation programme further. We have no plans of expanding into fiction at the moment. We are sticking to non-fiction, academic, and general interest titles.

The first phase is of course translation heavy as we begin to establish ourselves in the market, however, there are new acquisitions currently underway for the coming years. As the programme develops, a healthy mix of translations and new books in Indian languages will be made available in both print and digital formats. While beginning with these two languages were accessible, given our resources, our long-term plan is to venture into new Indian languages such as Tamil, Telugu, Marathi etc. For now we are  taking one step at a time to build this programme with the mature languages. When the time comes to include new languages, we will do so.

Our core audience remain the same as our English language books, mostly students, teachers, scholars, researchers, civil society activists, think tanks, as well as general readers. While researching the market for Hindi and Bengali books, we realized that reading habits differ from one to the other. While the Hindi heartland is more inclined towards reading books that are lucidly written around a given issue, free from academic jargon, Bengali readers are more accustomed to reading academic titles spanning multiple disciplines.

Our publication lists will be tailor made to suit its respective audience. To customise specific language lists we will select titles for each market on the basis of the theme of the book, its appeal to readers in the respective language, style of translation, etc. Also, as our books start selling from next calendar year, we will begin accumulating and analyzing appropriate sales data. This data will help us understand what we are doing right and what not – in some ways at least. We will accordingly make decisions on the titles we are doing for each group.

However, we are always ready to experiment and jazz things up a little if the need be. It is in the themes, topics, subjects etc. of the books we will publish and the forms with which we will experiment.

What is the focus of the Oxford Global Languages project and how long has it been running?

The Oxford Global Languages (OGL) project aims to build lexical resources for 100 of the world’s languages and make them available online. The OGL programme targets learners of all age groups. In short, it is a digital dictionary of diverse languages. OGL is part of OUP’s core publication programme –   the programme aims to build lexical resources for 100 of the world’s languages and make them available wildly, digitally. It includes curating large quantities of quality lexical information for a wide range of languages in a single, linked repository for use by speakers, learners, and developers. This project began in 2014 and launched its first two language sites, isiZulu and Northern Sotho, in 2015, followed by Malay, Urdu, Setswana, Indonesian, Romanian, Latvian, Hindi, and Swahili. Many more will be added over the next few years.

How are these two programmes linked as well as maintain their distinct identities?

The global languages programme is aimed at building large lexical repositories for diverse language speakers across the world. Our programme will feed into this programme by helping coin new terms and as well as borrow terms from the resources that would have already been developed and stored in these repositories by experts in different languages. The two programmes thus seamlessly merge into each other as they together help develop a given language. We expect that these two projects would also help multiple stakeholders, for instance, translators, new authors, students, researchers, speakers, etc. in constantly enriching their reading and writing skills.


The new terms will be initially in Hindi and Bengali (such as say post-modern, ecology etc. ) that are being coined by translators or new authors, over time with frequent use, will get incorporated in dictionaries such as OGL as well as borrow terms from the resources. Similarly, terms that will be developed by OGL could be borrowed by translators or new authors in their works.

OUP India for many years ran a very successful translations programme that published regional language authors in to English such as Karukku and then the monographs (?). How will this newly launched programme be any different? What are the learnings from the previous programme which are going to be incorporated into this new launch?

The existing translations programme from Indian Languages to English was aimed at enriching the English speaking and reading world with the diversity in our regional literature. This programme translates works of fiction and non-fiction from diverse languages to English and it has been immensely successful in creatively rethinking our societies through exceptional works of regional and folk literature.  We will not create any new imprint, all books in all languages will be included under the Oxford banner.

The Indian languages publishing programme does not aim to publish fiction or poetry at all. It will only publish non-fiction/academic works both in translation and new works in Indian languages. Our core and traditional strength has been — academic, nonfiction and general reads titles, also a bit of translations into English. This is a mandate that we follow in every part of the Press, globally – and we do not see any change during the immediate future. We will definitely do books on Film studies, yet again only non-fiction titles.

The take away from the earlier programme is that translations are always tricky business. Translations of academic titles are tricky for multiple reasons, including:

  • Unlike English, formal writing styles for Hindi and Bengali are still being developed.
  • Lack of terms for new concepts in Indian Languages.
  • Essence of the original is at times lost in translation, retaining authenticity is tricky.

It is true that some things are always lost in translation, there is no way around it. We are trying to compensate this loss by rigorously reviewing our manuscripts by external peer reviewers —- scholars, academics, researchers, journalists, translators, who are well versed in English and Hindi or English and Bengali, with background knowledge in the disciplines of the books they are reviewing.

Such reviews are helping us develop the language further, making it lucid, readable, and accessible. Similarly, for the new books that we plan to publish under the Indian languages programme will be reviewed for their academic authenticity, clarity in expressions etc.

How many languages are you launching it in? What is to be the focus — academic, trade and children or is will OUP stick to the niche area of academic titles?

As already mentioned earlier, we are beginning with two languages, Hindi and Bengali. The focus will be serious non-fiction and academic. We are breaking the boundaries of our usual core competencies and planning to attract readers that fall outside it as well.

As an academic publisher whose business model relies considerably upon peer review, will such a rigorous process also be instituted for this project?

Yes of course, we plan to stick to our professionalism and ethical way of doing business. Language no bar. Quality is our top most priority and from our experiences in the English language programme, we understand and appreciate the value of peer reviews. The time and effort that goes into developing each manuscript in such a way is worthwhile.

How will OUP India create a demand for these titles as you are venturing into a territory that is not easily identified by readers and institutions with OUP’s mandate?

OUP as an academic press and publisher of quality knowledge resources is well identified by students, researchers, scholars, teachers across the length and the breadth of the country. Not only our academic books but our school and higher education books are frequently refereed to and stand out in quality from the rest. To say the least, we are a household name in the country. Also, we already cater to a group of readers whose primary language is not English by publishing classic texts such as those by Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, Veena Das, Austin Granville, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, Ramachandra Guha to name a few, which are used by students and teachers and readers across disciplines. Indian language editions of these rare classics are not easily available and students end up either reading from summary notes made by teachers or poorly done translations. Therefore an audience for our books already exists, we only need fill the gap by doing what we do best, publish quality content.

Our plans for attracting new readers have also already been discussed above. There does not exist much resources, academic and otherwise in Indian languages, as publishers we should be encouraging new authors to read and write in their native languages. We hope that our enthusiasm for this programme will also enthuse our stakeholders, mostly readers, writers, thinkers, learners, distributors. Our aim through this programme is to create new and diverse public spheres and reach out to as many readers as possible in its wake.

Will these books only be offered in print or will there also be a digital version available too?

Digital versions of our books will also be made available along with print versions and we are ensuring that we are able to launch the two simultaneously – to start with in Hindi.

If  you are making classical texts from the regional languages available in English will OUP India also encourage translations from its English list into the local languages? If so, how will these projects be funded or will also these be fostered by OUP?

Our programme involves translating English titles into Hindi and Bengali within the programme. We also have plans to translate from Hindi and Bengali to English thereby ensuring that there exists a free flow of thoughts and knowledge between languages. We also hope that as we establish this translation programme, we are able to encourage close associations with groups of individual experts, institutions, and organization to develop a network of people enriched in the art of translation, such that our native languages are not lost to oblivion. We aspire to give diverse languages a new lease of life in the long-term.

Will you explore co-publishing arrangements with local publishers to drive this programme?

We are open to ideas and appropriate opportunities – that fit our quality aspirations, as well as the mission of the Press.

To maintain a quality and a standard in the translations will OUP consider empanelling translators whose skills will be upgraded regularly or will you commission work depending on the nature of every book?

We empanel translators based on their subject and language competencies and these are constantly developed in the process of translation itself with the help of continuous reviews.

What are your expectations of this project? How will you measure the success of this new project?

We expect this project to enrich readers, writers, speakers, and learners of diverse languages in our country. We also hope for it to become as successful as our English language publication and to be recognized as formidable publishers of quality books across languages and disciplines. The long-term plan is to grow and develop in these languages simultaneously with our own growth as a truly global and diverse publisher.  We believe that success for such programmes can be measured in the publishing world by the kind of impact we have on our users and readers. If we inspire new and existing readership and help grow interest in good and quality content, we think we will have succeeded.

24 Oct 2017 

Censorship, state and formation of literature

A Stasi official observing the interrogation of the lover of an East German playwright whose loyalty to the state is questioned, in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film The Lives of Others, 2006

An extract from the New York Review of Books review by Timothy Garton Ash of Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature by Robert Darnton” ( 23 October 2014)

I have only once met a censor on active duty. In the spring of 1989, my friends at the newly founded Polish opposition newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza let me take a cartoon up to the in-house censor at the printing house of the main Communist Party daily, on whose weary old presses Solidarity’s organ for the dismantlement of communism was now being produced. I knocked on the door, only to find a bored-looking woman in a floral dress, with a cigarette on her lip and a glass of tea at hand. She slowly scanned the cartoon and the article to which it related, as if to demonstrate that she could read, and then stamped her approval on the back of the cartoon.

My taskmistress showed few obvious signs of being an intellectual, but one of the leitmotifs of Robert Darnton’s new book is how intellectually sophisticated censors have often been. Drawing on original archival research, he offers three fine-grained, ethnographic (his word) studies of censors at work: in Bourbon France, British India, and Communist East Germany. In eighteenth-century France, the censors were not just writers manqués; many were writers themselves. They included men like F.-A. Paradis de Moncrif, a playwright, poet, and member of the Académie française. To be listed as a Censeur du Roi in the Almanach royal was a badge of honor. These royal censors initialed every page of a manuscript as they perused it, making helpful suggestions along the way, like a publisher’s editor. Their reports often read like literary reviews. One of them, M. Secousse, solicitously approved an anthology of legal texts that he himself had edited—thus giving a whole new meaning to the term “self-censorship.”

In British India, the censors—not formally so called—were scholars and gentlemen, either British members of the elite Indian Civil Service (the “heaven born”) or their learned Indian colleagues. Harinath De, a candidate for the post of imperial librarian in Calcutta in 1906,

had mastered Latin, Greek, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Sanskrit, Pali, Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Oriya, Marathi and Guzerati, along with some Provençal, Portuguese, Romanian, Dutch, Danish, Anglo-Saxon, Old and Middle High German, and a smattering of Hebrew, Turkish and Chinese. He got the job.

Besides being a librarian, that job involved contributing summary reviews to an extraordinary printed catalog of every book published in the Raj from 1868 onward. It included more than 200,000 titles by 1905. Although given to describing anything with erotic content, including the hanky-panky of Hindu gods, as “filthy,” these literary monitors were often highly appreciative of the works under review, especially when the authors showed some virtuosity of style and depth of scholarship.

In the summer of 1990, Darnton, the lifelong historian of books and censorship, had the thrill of finally meeting two real-life censors. In East Berlin, the capital of the soon-to-be-history German Democratic Republic, he found Frau Horn and Herr Wesener, both holders of advanced degrees in German literature, eager to explain how they had struggled to defend their writers against oppressive, narrow-minded higher-ups in the Party, including an apparent dragon woman called Ursula Ragwitz. The censors even justified the already defunct Berlin Wall on the grounds that it had preserved the GDR as a Leseland, a land of readers and reading. Darnton then plunges with gusto into the Communist Party archives, to discover “how literature was managed at the highest levels of the GDR.”

He gives instances of harsh repression from all three places and times. Thus, an eighteenth-century chapter of English PEN could have taken up the case of Marie-Madeleine Bonafon, a princess’s chambermaid, who was walled up, first in the Bastille and then in a convent, for a total of thirteen and a half years. Her crime? To have written Tanastès, a book about the king’s love life, thinly disguised as a fairy tale. In 1759, major works of the Enlightenment, including Voltaire’s poem on natural religion and Diderot’s Pensées philosophiques, were “lacerated and burned by the public hangman at the foot of the great staircase of the Parlement” in Paris.

In British India, civilized tolerance of native literature turned to oppression in the early years of the twentieth century, as Indian nationalist protests grew following the partition of Bengal. A wandering minstrel called Mukanda Lal Das was sentenced to three years’ “rigorous imprisonment” for singing his subversive “White Rat Song,” with lyrics that come out in the official British translation like this:

Do you know, Deputy Babu, now your head is under the boots of the Feringhees, that they have ruined your caste and honor and carried away your riches cleverly?

In East Germany, Walter Janka suffered five years of solitary confinement for being too much involved with György Lukacs in 1956.

Yet such outright persecution is not Darnton’s main theme. As his subtitle suggests, what really interests him is “how states shaped literature.” They have generally done so, he argues, through processes of complex negotiation. In eighteenth-century France, censors made suggestions on grounds of taste and literary form; they also ensured that no well-placed aristocrats received unwelcome attention and that compliments to the king were sufficiently euphuistic. Different levels of authorization were available, from the full royal privilege to a “tacit permission.”

In East Germany, elaborate quadrilles were danced by censors, high-level apparatchiks, editors, and, not least, writers. The celebrated novelist Christa Wolf had sufficient clout to insist that a very exceptional ellipsis in square brackets be printed at seven points in her 1983 novel Kassandra, indicating censored passages. This of course sent readers scurrying to the West German edition, which visitors smuggled into the country. Having found the offending words, they typed them up on paper slips and gave these to friends for insertion at the correct place. Among its scattering of striking illustrations, Censors at Work reproduces one such ellipsis on the East German printed page and corresponding typewritten slip.

Klaus Höpcke, the deputy minister for publishing and the book trade (a state position, and therefore subordinated to higher Party authorities), seems to have spent almost as much time in the 1980s fending off the Party leaders above him as he did curbing the writers below. He received an official Party reprimand for allowing Volker Braun’s Hinze-Kunze-Roman, the scabrous story of an apparatchik and his chauffeur, to be published, albeit in a carefully “negotiated” form. Finally, in a flash of late defiance, Deputy Minister Höpcke even supported an East German PEN resolution protesting against the arrest of one Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1989.

Some celebrated writers do not emerge trailing clouds of glory from the cold-eyed files of censorship. Voltaire, that legendary champion of free speech, apparently tried to get the royal censors to suppress the works of his enemies. It was the censor-in-chief who, while he might not have agreed with what Voltaire’s enemies said, defended their right to say it.

The office of the East German Politburo member responsible for culture, Kurt Hager, “kept long lists of writers who sent in requests for visas, cars, better living conditions, and intervention to get their children into universities.” A plea by the writer Volker Braun to be allowed a subscription to the leading West German liberal weekly Die Zeit went all the way up to Hager, with a supportive letter from the deputy minister, who argued that this would provide Braun with materials for a novel satirizing capitalism. In the course of tough negotiations with senior cultural apparatchiks in the mid-1970s, Braun is even recorded as saying that Hager was “a kind of idol for him.” Can we credit him with irony? Perhaps. Writers who have never faced such pressures should not be too quick to judge. And yet one feels a distinct spasm of disgust.

17 March 2017 

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