The following was written for a conference on exiles held by the Wheatland Foundation in Vienna in December.
As we gather here, in this attractive and well-lit room, on this cold December evening, to discuss the plight of the writer in exile, let us pause for a minute and imagine some of those who, quite naturally, didn’t make it to this room. Let us imagine, for instance, Turkish gast-arbeiters prowling the streets of West Germany, uncomprehending or envious of the surrounding reality. Or let us imagine Vietnamese boat people bobbing on high seas or already settled somewhere in the Australian outback. Let us imagine Mexican wetbacks crawling the ravines of southern California, past the border patrols into the territory of the United States. Or let us imagine shiploads of Pakistanis disembarking somewhere in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, hungry for menial jobs the oil-rich locals won’t do. Let us imagine multitudes of Ethiopians trekking some desert on foot into Somalia—or is it the other way around?—escaping the famine. Well, we may stop here because that minute of imagining has already passed, although a great many could be added to this list. Nobody ever counted these people and nobody, including the UN relief organizations, ever will: coming in the millions, they elude computation and constitute what is called—for want of a better term or a higher degree of compassion—migration.
Whatever the proper name for these people, whatever their motives, origins, and destinations, whatever their impact on the societies which they abandon and to which they come may amount to—one thing is absolutely clear: they make it very difficult to talk about the plight of the writer in exile with a straight face.
Yet talk we must; and not only because literature, like poverty, is known for taking care of its own kind, but more because of the ancient and perhaps as yet unfounded belief that should the masters of this world be better read, the mismanagement and grief that make millions take to the road could be somewhat reduced. Since there is not much on which to rest our hopes for a better world, since everything else seems to fail one way or another, we must somehow maintain that literature is the only form of moral insurance a society has; that it is the permanent antidote to the dog-eat-dog principle; that it provides the best argument against any sort of bulldozer-type mass solution—if only because human diversity is literature’s lock and stock, as well as its raison d’être.
We must talk because we must insist that literature is the greatest—surely greater than any creed—teacher of human subtlety, and that by interfering with literature’s natural existence and with people’s ability to learn literature’s lessons, a society reduces its own potential, slows down the pace of its evolution, ultimately, perhaps, puts its own fabric in peril. If this means that we must talk about ourselves, so much the better: not for ourselves but perhaps for literature.
Whether he likes it or not, Gastarbeiters…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.