Let the tribute fit the crime

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Earlier this year, The Guardian newspaper reported that Chilean author Eduardo Labarca thought urinating on the tomb of Jorge Luis Borges was the most fitting tribute to the writer. He explained to Argentina’s that Borges’s talent as a writer had not been matched by his behaviour outside literature: ‘”Borges was a giant as a writer but I feel complete contempt for him as a citizen. As an old man, almost blind, he came to meet the dictator Pinochet in the days when he was busy killing.” Borges was delighted with Pinochet. “He is an excellent person,” he said afterwards.’ 

British author Ian McEwan R sits next to Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat C and Israeli President Shimon Peres LBritish author Ian McEwan sits next to Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat and Israeli President Shimon Peres (GETTY IMAGES)

In his acceptance speech at the Jerusalem Book Fair on Sunday 20 February – widely praised in the mainstream media for being critical of some of Israel’s policies –, Ian McEwan began by insisting that he was in blameless company: “The ‘backlist’ of this award is unequalled in the world… I cannot believe for a moment that I am worthy to stand alongside such figures as Isaiah Berlin, Jorge Luis Borges, or Simone de Beauvoir.” McEwan went on to extol the virtues of the prize and the Israeli state: “everybody knows this simple fact: once you’ve instituted a prize for philosophers and creative writers, you have embraced freedom of thought and open discourse, and I take the continued existence of the Jerusalem Prize as a tribute to the precious tradition of a democracy of ideas in Israel.” It is worth reflecting on his statement: in this context, it assumes a certain quality of political discourse by writers and thinkers, as well as taking for granted that having an official prize awarding international writers ‘whose work deals with themes of individual freedom in society’ signifies the host society’s guarantee of those freedoms to all those in its care. 

By disdaining the Palestinian boycott call, McEwan has shown he is worthy to stand alongside such figures as Jerusalem mayor, Nir Barkat and Israeli President, Shimon Peres: both are involved in grave violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention – the former through the Jerusalem Municipality’s implementation of Israel’s project of annexing occupied Palestinian territory, while the latter’s war crimes include ordering the bombing and shelling of civilians in Lebanon. In standing with them, the British novelist has underlined the poverty of his own discourse.

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