The spectres of Marx

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'Freedom is always the freedom to think differently.'

Dropping in on my favourite local indy bookstore on a beautiful fall Sunday morning, I inquire as to whether or not they might have anything by the winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize for literature. I had never heard of (and knew nothing about) her until she won the prize this past September. Her name escapes at the moment I enter the store so the clerk asks, somewhat helpfully, “Would that be the Commie from Austria?” Not sure what the appropriate response to this would be, I simply laugh nervously.

Elfriede Jelinek is the winner of this year's Nobel Prize for Literature and a quick surf of the web reveals that — among other things — she wrote The Piano Teacher which was turned into a successful film last year, and that aside from being a prominent figure in Austria she is also a bit of a recluse, an outspoken Jewish Feminist and — horror of horrors, you guessed it — a card carrying member of the Austrian Communist Party until it folded up shop some years ago.

Every year the Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded to someone who is often — like Jelinek — a relative unknown in the Anglophone world (or as the clerk said to me, “somebody no one has ever heard of”). Over the years I have thoroughly enjoyed the writers I have discovered through the Nobel Prize and as someone who does not believe in judging the artistic merits of writers, painters and other artists based on their political views, I really do not care (except, perhaps, indirectly) about the politics of the Nobel Prize winners. Not so my friendly bookstore clerk.

“The Nobel Prize winners are always Commies, you didn't know that?” he asks me, now truly warming to the subject and finding a passive, if not willing, audience. In the background, another store clerk starts looking anxious. “I used to have a list up here somewhere,” the clerk continues, “of the Nobel Prize winners going way back. I checked them off. Commie, Commie, Commie. Now what was the name of the winner this year?” He clearly was not joking.

After finding Jelinek's name and running it through his database, the clerk came up with a few titles. “Looks like she wrote a book called Lust. And another called Wonderful, Wonderful Years. Not under 70 years of Communism I would guess.”

I was well and truly flummoxed. Was this a small, independent bookstore in downtown Toronto, or a Christian bookstore in Kansas?

Now, although I do not specifically care about the politics of the Nobel Prize winner, I do know that one of my favourite writers, the 1998 Nobel recipient José Saramago happens to be a card carrying Communist; however, I also know that last year's winner, the brilliant South African writer J.M. Coetzee, is no friend of Lenin. Likewise, I think, with the 2000 winner Gao Xingjian. I don't know too much about the 2001 winner V.S. Naipaul but what I do know is that he is certainly no Commie. Neither was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the famous Soviet dissident who won in 1970.

At a loss for words at my favourite bookstore and really just wanting a good book to read, I said, “I know nothing about Jelinek but I know J.M. Coetzee is certainly no comrade.” The clerk ignored me and carried on with his diatribe, listing off the past winners who were, according to him, “Commies” with a capital “C.” And he didnâe(TM)t even mention Saramago. Trying to connect, I jumped in eagerly. “Don't forget Saramago!” Still, nothing.

As a life long human rights activist and having visited the glorious Worker's and Peasant's State (East Germany) in 1985, I am no fan of Soviet style communism. And while I cannot understand how anyone could have been attracted to socialist realism, I can understand why good-hearted and intelligent people are sometimes attracted to Communism as an ideal. Among my top ten favourite writers are several Germans, two of whom — Bertolt Brecht, who moved to East Germany in 1949, and the wonderful feminist and former East German citizen Christa Wolf — were Communists, and two of whom — Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll — were firmly anti-Communist. I did not bother pointing out to the store clerk that while Brecht and Wolf may be great writers, they have not been awarded the Nobel Prize while Boll and Grass both have been. I guess the Red Nobel Prize committee was asleep at the switch those years.

The store clerk continued, offering some helpful advice. “These books from these obscure writers can be hard to get. People like Jelinek — their books are published by small, socialist-slash-communist-slash-Marxist-Leninist publishers out of the UK.” I suppose, in retrospect, that he was trying tell me there is no market for these kinds of books (so I guess they should not exist); however, if you really want one there is someone publishing them, namely hyphenated sinister/evil outfits based in hopelessly, uncompetitive socialist Europe (don't you just hate the Guardian and the BBC?).

By now I just wanted to leave — no, make that run away. It had struck me that a small indy bookstore had more to worry about with George Bush, Paul Martin and the WTO than from North Korea and the global communist conspiracy, but I did not have the heart to try and point this out. Besides, it was almost impossible to get a word in edgewise.

“Did you want to put one of Jelinek's titles on hold?” I was asked, derisively. “No thanks,” I replied, utterly defeated, “I think I'll try the library.”

As I left the store I suddenly felt rather happy. To ask for the Nobel Prize winner at some place like Chapters would be to solicit — in all likelihood — a blank stare. “Pardon me? Please wait while I call my manager.” (Or store security). The strictures of mass marketing consumer culture require absolutely no opinions be expressed (or, preferably, held) regarding anything remotely controversial. So kudos to my local indy bookstore clerk for feeling free to vent his (perhaps somewhat mistaken) views about the Nobel Prize for Literature. And after all, Soviet communism was responsible for much evil, not the least of which was the widespread censorship of writers and other artists. As Rosa Luxemburg once said, “Freedom is always the freedom to think differently.” Let us just hope that the freedom to be different can be protected from its modern enemies: the fundamentalisms of global capital and organized religion.

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