A question of imbalance

Newly crowned Nobel laureate Harold Pinter's new book of essays and poems is far more political than poetic.

pinter book 88 (photo credit: )
pinter book 88
(photo credit: )
Death, etc. By Harold Pinter Grove Press 124pp., $14 Harold Pinter has been battling cancer of the esophagus for three years, but his printed voice has not weakened. The recently named British Nobel laureate, revered for the elegant power and strangeness of plays such as The Birthday Party and The Homecoming, has recently eschewed stage work so he can advocate for peace. Death, etc., a book of essays and poems published just three days before he won the world's highest literary honor, is the bitter fruit of this effort. It is a powerful, angry indictment of the balance of power in our world. Mixing very short plays with poetry and brief editorials, Pinter depicts a planet where power over the dispossessed is often unchecked, and where such authority is wielded sadistically. All the plays included here operate like interrogations. In Mountain Language, two women who have come to visit an imprisoned relative are shouted at for not giving their names, and then imprisoned for speaking their native language. "Your language is forbidden. It is dead. No one is allowed to speak your language," announces a sergeant. "Your language no longer exists. Any questions?" The circular logic of such dialogue - so redolent of Samuel Beckett's plays, but scarier - is employed frequently in Pinter's work. In The New World Order (1991), a man preparing to torture a prisoner pulls back and confesses to his cohort. "I feel so pure," he says, weeping tears of joy before what ought to be a grim assignment. His companion reassures him. "You're right to feel pure. You know why? Because you're keeping the world clean for deocracy." To Pinter, the campaign for democracy led by America and its allies is simply a Trojan horse for their pursuit of domination for their own sake. Pinter doesn't have much regard for democracy, since he perceives America as one of the worst violators of human rights - if not in practice, then through its tacit support of brutal regimes. "The United States has supported, subsidized and, in a number of cases, engendered every right-wing military dictatorship in the world since 1945," Pinter writes in an open letter to Tony Blair. "I refer to Guatemala, Indonesia, Chile, Greece, Uruguay, the Philippines, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey and El Salvador, for example. Hundreds of thousands of people have been murdered by these regimes, but the money, the resources, the equipment (of all kinds), the advice - the moral support, as it were - has come from successive US administrations." Before one writes this off as Bush-bashing, it's useful to note that it was written in 1998. But Pinter certainly has no great love for Bush. In other editorials he takes issue with the current US administration's backing out of international weapons treaties, its development of advanced weapons of mass destruction, its detention without trial of prisoners in Guantanamo, its insistence on immunity from the international criminal court, and most of all, the war in Iraq. Pinter is clearly not a believer in the concept of American exceptionalism - the often disputed idea, attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville, which states that due to the circumstances and credo of its birth, America holds a unique place in the world as a force for humanity, freedom and safety. Pinter has a hard time squaring that with civilian deaths in Baghdad. "Thousands upon thousands of civilians have been killed in Iraq, and many thousand more mutilated for life," he writes. "We don't see the corpses of the mutilated children on television." "Freedom, democracy and liberation," he writes. "These terms, as enunciated by Bush and Blair, essentially mean death, destruction and chaos." These are harsh words, but they can be explained by Pinter's moral outrage, and by his sense that, in the war between pen and sword, it's still possible for the former to win. But in order to prevail, language must become its own brutal incendiary device. "There are no more words left to be said," he writes in The Bombs, the collection's most brief and brutal poem. "All we have left are the bombs/Which burst out of our heads."