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If a Nobel Laureate Can't Speak Out, Who Can?

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"It is difficult," said the American poet William Carlos Williams, "to get the news from poems." In a normal week, he'd be right. In a normal week, you'd be quite lucky, at least in the Western world, to find a poem that talked about what was happening in the news, and you'd be quite lucky to find anyone, outside a classroom, or a poetry group, talking about it if it did. But this week, a poem was the news. And it didn't go down all that well.

Günter Grass's poem, "What Must Be Said," which was published in a German newspaper last week, hasn't gone down well with critics, or journalists, or politicians. It hasn't gone down well with German politicians, who have called it "abominable," and "over the top," and "irritating." And it hasn't gone down well with Israeli politicians, who have decided not to pretend they're literary critics, but focus, instead on the content. Which, it's clear, they didn't like.

"His declarations," said Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, "are ignorant and shameful, and every honest person in this world must condemn them." It was, said the Israeli embassy in Berlin, "a European tradition to accuse the Jews before the Passover festival of ritual murder." It was, said Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, an example of the "egoism of so-called Western intellectuals who are willing to sacrifice the Jewish people on the altar of crazy anti-Semites for a second time, just to sell a few more books or gain recognition."

It's possible, of course, that Günter Grass, who is Germany's most famous living writer, and who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1999, feels he isn't famous enough. It's possible that he wrote his poem, about the balance of nuclear power in the Middle East, because he felt he hadn't sold quite enough books, and might not have all that many more years left to sell more. It's possible that he thought that the best way to celebrate Easter, in his 85th year, was to wreck the reputation he'd spent a lifetime building up, and get himself branded an anti-Semite. But it's also possible that he didn't.

It is, for example, possible that when he asked, in the poem, why he had "stayed silent" for so long about the "hypocrisy of the West" in relation to the Middle East, and why he had "forbidden" himself to name the country whose nuclear weapons he regarded as a threat to world peace, he was actually asking himself why he had stayed silent. It's possible that when he said he hadn't spoken out before because he came from a country with "a stain" on its history that was "never to be expunged," and knew that if he did speak out he would be called an anti-Semite, what he meant was that he didn't particularly want to be called an anti-Semite. And not that he did.

And it's possible that when he said that he had decided to speak out anyway, because he was old and might not have many more opportunities, and because he thought that Germans, already "burdened" with a terrible past, might be "complicit" in future horrors if they didn't, that is exactly what he meant.

Is it a good poem? Well, that, for those of us who don't speak German, is hard to tell. "Poetry," said the American poet Robert Frost, "is what gets lost in translation", and it certainly gets lost in the kind of translations that are done to meet a newspaper deadline. A good poem can take weeks, or months, to write. A good translation takes exactly the same. The translations I've read of this poem aren't likely to win anyone a Nobel Prize. But they also don't make it sound like a mad rant. They make it sound, in fact, like an agonized, if rather heavy-handed, meditation.

And is it, as the critics have implied, simplistic and naive? Does it, as so many angry people have said, imply that Israel and Iran are "morally equivalent"? Well, actually, no. Iran, says Grass in the poem, is a country "enslaved by a loudmouth... and guided to organized jubilation," which aren't really the words of a fan. Grass doesn't talk about Israel's leader, or its illegal "settlements." But he does say that Israel has been allowed to stockpile nuclear weapons without any inspections from anyone, and that Iran, which wants to, hasn't. Which, even angry Israelis would have to admit, is true.

Günter Grass may or may not be right to say, in his poem, that Israel's nuclear weapons are a threat to world peace. But he's certainly right to say that the West's attitude to Israel, and its nuclear arsenal, involves an awful lot of hypocrisy. He's right to say that Germans don't dare speak out about this, and he's right to suggest that if Israel decides to take some pre-emptive action against Iran, innocent civilians will be killed. And it's hard to see why he's wrong to hope that speaking out will "free many from silence," and prompt Israel to "renounce violence."

If a Nobel prizewinner can't express a political opinion, it's hard to see who can. Grass, it's true, has a "stain" of his own. He was, he revealed in a memoir six years ago, conscripted as a 17-year-old into the SS. But conscription, as many young Israelis will tell you, isn't the same as choice. It also means that you may well learn more than you'll ever want about the terrible realities of war.

In Syria, people who don't like their government are being gunned down on the streets. In Bahrain, they're being tortured, and locked up. In Germany, because it lost the war that wanted to turn the whole world into a fascist state, you're free to say what you like. You're free to criticize your government, and the governments of other countries, even if it's breaking a taboo. And even if it seems to make everyone around you go mad.

In Israel, you're meant to be free to say what you like, but if you're not Jewish, and you criticize the policies of the Israeli government, you're likely to be called an anti-Semite. And you are, it seems, because this is what the Israeli government has just done to Günter Grass, quite likely to be banned from the country.

It would have been better all around if Grass's poem had been better. Unfortunately, great writers can't produce great art all the time. But Günter Grass has produced at least one great work of art. It's called The Tin Drum. It's about, in as far as you can sum up what any novel is about, the power of art to defeat war.

It may be a bit naive to think art can defeat war, or that a poem can make a government change its mind. But a poem, like a novel, or a play, can make people think. If enough people change their views, then maybe governments - even the ones who say they believe in freedom of speech, but make it clear from their actions that they don't - will change theirs too.

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