What is literature for?, by Juan Goytisolo & Günter Grass (Le Monde diplomatique

Saint Joseph reading a book and holding a flowering staff.

Pier Francesco Mola (1612-1666)

Juan Goytisolo: I would like to start by quoting one of Günter Grass’s articles: ‘What is literature for, when the future seems like a catastrophe prophesied by horrifying statistics? What is there left to say, when each new day gives us multiple examples of humankind’s capacity to destroy itself and all living beings in the most inventive ways? After Auschwitz, the only thing we can measure is the permanent threat of collective self-extermination, through nuclear power, which gives the “final solution” a new global dimension. The future is revealed to be largely exhausted or, if you prefer, ruined. It is now just a project that has a strong chance of being abandoned.’

The winners of the cold war are in the process of accomplishing something unprecedented: lobotomising the human species through a clever combination of technoscience (the alliance of science and technology) and the technomarket (the alliance of technology and the market) (1). We are approaching dystopia via absolutely unpredictable routes. So my first question may seem absurd: what can literature do to defend human beings against this planned catastrophe?

Günter Grass: I was first forced to confront this terrible question when I was still a young German-language writer. At the end of the second world war, I was barely 17. I had some personal artistic projects, but I very quickly felt that, for my generation and for the authors of German literature that was just starting up again, the main themes were set: Germany’s criminal war, its unconditional surrender, its crimes and their tragic shadow. At that same time, I experienced the censorship that was being imposed on the past in the early 1950s in West Germany — as it was in East Germany. Some political leaders, and even intellectuals, constructed legends. They spoke of a poor deceived people, manipulated by ‘pied pipers of Hamelin’. Whereas, I remember it very well, having been a child and an adolescent during this dire period: everything happened in broad daylight. The lies were obvious, but most Germans, after 1945, adopted a policy of not talking about them, to cover everything with a cloak of amnesia, and leave things as they were.

I remember it very well, having been a child and an adolescent during this dire period: everything happened in broad daylight

Günter Grass

This is the situation to which the youthful literature of the period wished to respond. We positioned ourselves against these silences and omissions from the start. And I have maintained the same attitude against official attempts at appeasement, against the status quo and against a historiography that stubbornly hides and sometimes transforms the past, keeping the truth away from new generations. Preventing this from happening is one of the missions of literature.

Heinrich Böll (2) and I have always refused to be called ‘the conscience of the nation’. This is nonsense — a writer cannot be the conscience of the nation and relieve the nation of its own responsibilities, so that the nation feels no responsibility with regards to its own conscience. Despite everything, some German writers revealed what had been hidden or covered up by lies. They carried out essential memory work. This was their historic mission, even if it is a mission that has no end.

Juan Goytisolo: In Spain, we are experiencing the same phenomenon of amnesia and forgetting, negotiated by all the political forces during the democratic transition between 1975 and 1978.

But I would like to address another matter. Since 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, humankind has made a tremendous leap backward. We are witnessing the systematic dismantling of the welfare state, the atomisation of the working class, the collapse of union membership, the abandonment of any attachment to republican principles. Mainstream discourse encourages us to resign ourselves to arbitrariness and abuse of power, and the march of a caricature of liberalism — reduced to a series of formulas: market, deregulation, competitiveness, flexibility, productivity, offshoring etc. In short, we are told that to defend the nation’s economy we have to kick out the nation’s working class. And the European Union, about which so much is said, behaves like a union of banks. Given this scandal, what is surprising is the silence of postmodern intellectuals.

Günter Grass: We are indeed experiencing unbridled capitalism, which is clearly in the process of self-destructing, and of destroying us. The first victims are workers, who are at risk of being excluded from the system due to lack of employment. We are experiencing a strange change in society. In the past, it was very clear what an asocial person was: it was a person who refused to work, and who could be found hanging around on street corners, hands in pockets. Today, an antisocial person drives a Mercedes, is on the board of directors of Daimler-Benz or Siemens, and boasts to his shareholders that his company does not pay taxes in Germany. These people are proud of their antisocial attitude, and they boast of having succeeded in moving several production factories abroad and recruiting low-paid workers there. This is the current attitude of what we call ‘high society’. These new ‘asocials’ constantly complain, they feel misunderstood and confirm that the era of the famous ‘German morality of paying taxes’ is a thing of the past.

Also read Bernard Umbrecht, “The myth of German reunification”, Le Monde diplomatique, November 2009.

The fashionable slogan ‘Get rich!’ particularly applies to people in the new Eastern states, who did not voluntarily join West Germany as was the spirit of the unification mechanism, but which were annexed by means of expropriations. 90% of the productive capital of the former GDR currently belongs to West Germany. And the rights acquired in this way, in this gigantic enterprise of dispossession, will be passed from generation to generation. The counts of Thurn und Taxis continue to own large areas of land in southern Germany acquired through fraud committed during the era of the robber-barons of the 14th century. This is our social situation: a large number of republican advances and democratic achievements made during the long struggle to civilise savage capitalism are suddenly crumbling before our eyes.

What to do? First of all, reestablish the value of the old – and sometimes forgotten – ideals of the Enlightenment, of the ‘Illustration européenne’, the values of solidarity and fraternity. Then realise that it is no longer possible to continue like this. A response is already taking shape. In many European countries, electorates are rejecting exploitative capitalism and demanding social progress, without abandoning the market economy.

The same applies to the European Union. If Europe is to live up to its name, it must become something other than a mere union of economic forces. It needs a real social charter, real European culture. It is not enough to name a European cultural capital each year and award it financial aid. This is pure window-dressing. No, Europe represents more than its entrepreneurs and businessmen can imagine. They demand only one thing: more market. A market that floods everything and suffocates individuals. This is not the right answer.

These people are proud of their antisocial attitude, and they boast of having succeeded in moving several production factories abroad and recruiting low-paid workers there

Günter Grass

Regarding the silence of intellectuals in Germany, I would like to say that many members of my generational cohort who, in the 60s and 70s, defined themselves as much more leftwing than me and who criticised my attitude, which they described contemptuously as that of a ‘social democrat’, are today so far to the right that, if I wanted to address them, I would have to twist my neck until my bones cracked. That’s a very curious change, isn’t it?

Juan Goytisolo: It is, unfortunately, a common one. The same could be said of many Spanish intellectuals and writers. The question is, how can we confront this devastating capitalism? We see that it is leaving entire classes behind, both in Europe and in America. When you travel to the United States, you see that the number of excluded people is more frightening by the day. What future, too, for Africa in this context, when we know that the loans granted to it represent only a tiny part of what is stolen from it by underpaying for its raw and agricultural materials?

All this, which is the result of ‘pensée unique’ (3), fosters what the Mexican writer Octavio Paz rightly called ‘the revenge of particularisms’. And the march of all forms of religious fundamentalism. There is a lot of talk in the media about Islamic fundamentalism, which certainly exists and in whose name quite a few heinous crimes have been committed — among others, some of those perpetrated in Algeria since 1992. But there are other fundamentalisms: Hindu fundamentalism, a little talked about phenomenon that leads to the persecution of Muslim and Christian minorities; the Jewish fundamentalism rampant in Israeli settlements in the occupied territories; Catholic fundamentalism in Croatia; and — worst of all, or the deadliest in recent years — that of the extremist nationalists of Serbia, who called Slobodan Milosevic, perpetrator of genocide in the former Yugoslavia, ‘Jesus Christ’s son’.

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’Still life with jug on a book’

cc. John Frederick Peto (1854-1907)

At the same time, nationalist fundamentalisms are appearing, which mythologise the past and, by basing themselves on so-called absolutes, always preach an illusory return to a supposed golden age. The Madrid daily El Pais recently published texts by Sabino Arana, the father of Basque nationalism, which were frightening. These very harshly racist texts wholly reminded me of the fascist language of the Falangists in 1936. And this same language, these same expressions, can be found among the perpetrators of the genocide in Bosnia.

All these nationalists are obsessed with one idea: subtracting. Whereas the important thing in a culture is to add. A culture, in reality, is the sum of all the external influences it has received. Pretending to seek a single root, a single essence, leads not only to the ruin of this culture, but to the worst excesses and crimes committed by nationalists. I would like to hear about the German reaction to this return of nationalism and fundamentalism.

Günter Grass: The situation in Germany remains opaque. Apart from a few small groups, there is no strong nationalist tendency. There is, anyway, Germans’ inability to define themselves as a nation, because this word was discredited by our experience of National Socialism. Among young people, there is such disarray that it sometimes leads to extreme positions.

Nationalists are obsessed with one idea: subtracting. Pretending to seek a single root, a single essence, leads not only to the ruin of this culture, but to the worst excesses and crimes

Juan Goytisolo

Official policy is something else. When civil war broke out in the Balkans, the German population — as well as the government, because it was put under pressure — was very willing to welcome refugees. Germany has taken in more refugees from Bosnia than any other European country. But, one day, the former minister of the interior, Manfred Kanther, decided to stop this. So we now have a scandalous situation because around four thousand refugees —who have not committed any crime and had to flee from Nigeria, Turkey or Algeria for political reasons — find themselves in prison and fear being handed over to their countries’ authorities. Sometimes the Algerian or Nigerian police, informed by the German police, wait for them when they get off the plane, put them in prison and torture them. At first, the German press wrote about the story and protested against the situation but, unfortunately, as this inhumane behaviour repeats itself, the media becomes used to it.

The capitalist system itself behaves like a true fundamentalist power. Whatever is not part of the market (and it is the market which decides what is or is not part of it) is wrong, reprehensible. This principle is defended with great fanaticism, although through more subtle methods than those of Islamic fundamentalists. There is no need to resort to terror. Everything is decided on the stock exchange, using an entire catalogue of new terms like globalisation, as if this were an infallible recipe and our destiny was inevitable. Fortress Europe is more a nightmare than a hope, and I hope that before any possible unification, the maximum expression of which is the euro, we will be allowed to articulate some questions that cannot be measured by money.

In Germany, we have a nationality act that dates from the 19th century. This piece of legislation prevents hundreds of thousands of young people born here, who speak German better than the their parents’ language, who come from Turkey and many other countries, from acquiring citizenship (4). When I read through the articles of this law, I come across absolutely irrational expressions, such as: ‘To be German, you must have “German blood”’. I know the difference between good, bad or adulterated wine. But measuring the Germanity of blood is beyond me. My ancestors were izaschuben (slavs from Danzig). And the best cultural results are obtained by mixing.

In my novel Too Far Afield, I write about Theodor Fontane (5). The Fontane family emigrated to Brandenburg in Germany as the Huguenots were being expelled from France. This immigration led to the enrichment of German literature in the 19th century because of the incorporation of important writers of French origin such as Chamisso (6), Fouqué (7) and Fontane. None of this would have been possible under the current citizenship law.

Juan Goytisolo: In Spain, a country characterised by emigration, the question of the second generation does not even arise. Society presents an image of nouveaux riches and new Europeans — and this mixture is explosive. A survey carried out among young people aged 18 to 25 in Madrid recently told us that 7% of them were in favour expelling the Roma, a community that has lived among us since the 15th century. And 26% declared themselves in favour of evicting Arabs, 12% evicting Jews – a community that is extremely small and in no way visible; these young people have in their heads the image of an imaginary Jew.

Recently, another survey reported that 57% of the population had a negative image of Morocco and were suspicious of North Africans. It is surely because of this distrust that we read in the press that the army was preparing to destroy an arsenal of 600,000 antipersonnel mines. One newspaper reported: ‘The army’s arsenals and powder magazines have around 600,000 antipersonnel mines designed to kill or mutilate (…). Placed on Melilla’s border with Morocco, there are an alleged thirty per square metre. This arsenal of mines’ main mission was — until now — the sealing of some 20 kilometres of border between Melilla and Morocco. In the event of a conflict, their presence would act as a deterrent, according to military sources, and would help to deflect a possible attack towards areas that are easier to defend.’

If this information, dated 21 September 1997, had been broadcast in any other country it would have unleashed protests in intellectual circles. Here, no one raised their voice. How could anyone imagine ‘sealing’ this border with mines that could kill people fleeing poverty and misery?

We could also mention the indifference which greets the arrival of boats loaded with corpses of Albanian emigrants in southern Italy. There will probably soon be organised trips to the area around the Gibraltar Strait to see and photograph the shipwrecks of the rafts used by illegal immigrants… We are moving towards a totally inhumane society… It is not enough to preach tolerance: we must change legislation — which means opposing a whole series of legal and economic decisions that promote this detestable situation of which we are all silent witnesses.

Günter Grass: The same doubts – or rather the same silence – exist in Germany. Few people protested when the government offered Turkey former GDR tanks and armoured vehicles. Those who did protest knew that the Turkish would use these tanks and armoured vehicles against the Kurds. The Turkish government denied this, and the German government accepted these denials — while reports from Amnesty International and other organisations show that these exact tanks were used against the Kurds.

During the 1991 Gulf war, we talked about everything except two key words: oil and blood

Juan Goytisolo

I denounced this several times, but I was told old lies. There is a dogmatism, a form of thought reminiscent of the Middle Ages. Galileo would have the same problems today as he did in his own time, because scholastic thinking is being imposed once again: what should not exist does not. There have been so many things that they wanted us to believe: during the Gulf war, for example, they wanted us to believe that the West was defending freedom and democracy in Kuwait.

Juan Goytisolo: I would say that Galileo experienced something like what is currently happening to Noam Chomsky. But I would add one thing. A German writer who I usually respected wrote a truly toxic article at the time of the Gulf war: ‘We Germans were the Iraqis between 1933 and 1945.’ This is entirely false, because Hitler was democratically elected by the German people. And the German people were responsible for what Hitler did, while the unfortunate Iraqi people did not have the opportunity to choose their leaders. And the responsibility for the outbreak of the Gulf war rests entirely with Saddam Hussein. The paradox is that, almost ten years after such butchery, innocent Iraqi people continue to be the victims of economic sanctions which have already caused half a million children to die due to lack of antibiotics and other medications. While the dictator continues to live peacefully and even insults the UN Security Council.

During the 1991 Gulf war, we talked about everything except two key words: oil and blood. The blood of innocent victims, and the oil that is the object of the West’s strategic interest, particularly that of the United States.

I would like to quote an interview in which Günter Grass put all his hopes in a possible union between the Social Democratic Party and the Greens in Germany, to put an end to the right-wing government of Helmut Kohl. I fear that such hope is not allowed in Spain. I have lived outside Spain for many years, but I read the newspapers carefully (8). Nowhere do I see the emergence of left-wing personalities similar to that, for example, of Oskar Lafontaine (9), who could replace Aznar when the time comes. The Spanish Socialist Party has learned nothing from its well-deserved electoral defeat; it grouped itself defensively around a series of personalities suspected of having broken the law. And the sectarianism of the leaders of the Izquierda Unida (10) places it outside reality. We are also seeing the reemergence, from behind the civilised right of the Popular Party, of another pure, hard, Francoist right which has taken over the judiciary and which is trying to muzzle opposition media. What are the chances of real change in Germany?

Günter Grass: First of all, I have to put the brakes on these high hopes a little. Oskar Lafontaine is an asset, but I do not see him getting into power. Sometimes he is down, other times up, and his comrade Gerhard Schröder demonstrates such pragmatism, such a sense of adaptation, in short, such a capacity for mimicry that it makes me worry. Furthermore, I am noticing a certain political stagnation. The main conservative parties – CDU (Christian Democratic Union), CSU (Christian Social Union) and FDP (Liberal Democratic Party) – are exhausted: their race is run. They no longer believe in their own program, cannot make the slightest change, while the country needs reforms. With political parties, I learned — as a citizen, not as a writer — that you have to know how to use the strengths you have at your disposal, and to do so sparingly. Dreams are something else.

Also read Rachel Knaebel &

Pierre Rimbert, “The economic Anschluss of the GDR”, Le Monde diplomatique, November 2019.

As early as the 1980s, liberals — even social democrats — predicted the death of the European workers’ movement. That did not happen. We can see how unemployment is on the rise, especially among young people; how our pension systems are growing weaker and threaten to no longer be able to offer those who have worked their whole lives the security of a peaceful old age. Each of these victories, for which the workers’ movement fought for more than a hundred years, are being taken away one after the other. So much so that it sometimes seems to me, my dear Goytisolo, that the two of us are dinosaurs, solitary exceptions in our own countries.

What characterises an intellectual is the search for disinterested knowledge, without immediate profit

Juan Goytisolo

I fear that the youngest generation – and even the middle generation – no longer has the will to take over. However, we depend on them to help us emerge from this cold lethargy that is coming in from the United States or elsewhere. They must express their humanism, their compassion; begin to rid themselves of their boredom and selfishness, and decide to face the realities of our moment. Because we only grow by facing our adversaries. I miss the times of struggle of the past — and that makes me skeptical. Will we be able to pass on all our experience to new generations? I hope that the situation is different in Spain and that a generation of new rebellious authors is emerging here.

Juan Goytisolo: What characterises an intellectual is the search for disinterested knowledge, without immediate profit. Literary rigour translates into ethical rigour in relation to politics and society. Naturally, we can find examples of authors demonstrating ethical rigour in the realm of politics but not in the literary realm. Their work shows, on the contrary, that these two things are absolutely linked. For many authors, defending ‘unprofitable’, unspectacular causes is useless. The case of Bosnia or of the nearby massacres in Algeria, which happen against a backdrop of silence from the media, are eloquent examples of this. We could add to this list what is happening in Rwanda or Kurdistan. This is unfortunate because turning a blind eye to these problems also means closing one’s mind to any form of respect for the human person. And that concerns me, because, like you, I worry about the next generation. In a recent meeting on this subject at New York University, the American essayist Susan Sontag spoke superbly of her anguish at the loneliness of protest intellectuals within American society.

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Still life with cup and book (1915)

cc. Antonin Procházka (1882-1945)

Europe bears overwhelming responsibility for the destruction of African cultures and political entities. It provided criminal protection to those who profiteered and exploited their own people, these tyrants who sometimes made their states their private property, as Mobutu did in Zaire. In this regard, words change, but not methods. France thus bears an enormous responsibility for having for a long time maintained this type of dictator in the Francophone part of the continent. Reading about these devastated countries and seeing the cynical attitude of a chameleonic president like François Mitterrand, you wanted to shout: ‘Francophonie, what crimes are committed in your name!’.

Racist crimes are being committed here too. A few years ago, the inhabitants of a shantytown in San Blas, on the outskirts of Madrid, were evicted because the land was being sold. The non-Roma families were rehoused by the municipal authorities, while the Roma families were deported far away to Valdemingomez, near the city’s garbage dump… A real case of deportation to the most toxic place in Europe. This happened in early 1994; on 10 October 1997, I read this news in the press: ‘Experts from the health department have drawn up a plan to assess the impact of the incineration of household waste in Valdemingomez on the health of people, and propose to analyse the blood of residents near incineration plants’.

These specialists are seeking to determine the harmful effects of the fumes from these factories on the population at risk, who are naturally Roma. So you don’t need to go to Bosnia, or Rwanda, or Chechnya or Algeria to find ghettos from which people cannot escape. It is a truly scandalous situation which goes on for the sole reason that Roma and immigrants do not vote; they are not politically profitable, and therefore do not interest political parties.

We sometimes forget that, during the wars in Yugoslavia, not only were certain peoples victims of atrocities and massacres at one time or other — such as Muslims, Croats, Serbs and Kosovars — but that one community, the Roma, was everyone’s target

Günter Grass

Günter Grass: This is a very painful subject for Germans because, unlike in Spain and other countries, in Germany, during Nazism, the persecution of Roma was part of the genocide. They too were exterminated at Auschwitz, Treblinka, Oranienburg, Bergen-Belsen etc. We do not know the exact figure, but between 400,000 and 500,000 Roma were killed in extermination camps or died due to epidemics. In addition, many Roma women were sterilised. Some are still alive, and there are frightening testimonies of what it meant for them, for their lives as women and their family relationships, not to be able to have children.

Unlike other minorities in Germany, the Roma have not succeeded in making themselves heard. 16,000 of them, refugees from Yugoslavia, currently live in Berlin. We sometimes forget that, during the wars in Yugoslavia, not only were certain peoples victims of atrocities and massacres at one time or other — such as Muslims, Croats, Serbs and Kosovars — but that one community, the Roma, was everyone’s target (11). They were the first to be massacred as soon as one of the peoples decided to practice ethnic cleansing. For them, fleeing to Germany did not necessarily mean salvation. They now live in Berlin completely illegally, in hiding, and no one looks after them. As well as the two foundations that I created (one devoted to art, and the other to literature), I recently founded another dedicated to the Roma. Because are there any truer Europeans than the Roma? They go from one country to another, crossing all borders. And should serve as a model at a time when the new Europe praises mobility and relocation…

Juan Goytisolo: Well, now, let’s talk about literature…

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Conversation recorded by Antonio Albiñana. What is literature for?, by Juan Goytisolo & Günter Grass (Le Monde diplomatique

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