Review by John Freeman
Harold Pinter has been fighting a battle with cancer of the esophagus for three years, but his printed voice hasn't weakened. The recently crowned British Nobel laureate, revered for the elegant power and strangeness of plays like The Birthday Party and The Homecoming, has eschewed stage work in this time so that he can advocate for peace.
Death, Etc., his most recent book of essays and political writings, published just three days before he won the world's highest literary honor, is the bitter fruit of this effort. It is a powerful, angry indictment of the balance of power in our world. Mixing very short plays with poetry and brief editorials, Pinter depicts a planet where power over the dispossessed is often unchecked, where such authority is wielded sadistically.
All of the plays included here operate like interrogations. In "Mountain Language," two women who have come to visit an imprisoned relative are shouted at for not giving their names, and then imprisoned for speaking their native language. "Your language is forbidden. It is dead. No one is allowed to speak your language," announces a sergeant. "Your language no longer exists. Any questions?" The circular logic of such dialogue—so redolent of Samuel Beckett's plays, but even scarier since how does one speak when language is taken away?—is employed frequently in Pinter's work.
In "The New World Order" (1991), a man preparing to torture a prisoner pulls back and confesses to his cohort. "I feel so pure," he says, weeping tears of joy, before what ought to be a grim assignment. His companion reassures him. "You're right to feel pure. You know why? Because you're keeping the world clean for democracy."
To Pinter, the campaign for democracy around the world is simply a Trojan horse for America and Great Britain's pursuit of domination of the world's natural resources—and domination for its own sake. Pinter does not put much stake in democracy, since his perception of America's record on human rights is abysmal.
"The United States has supported, subsidized, and in a number of cases, engendered every right-wing military dictatorship in the world since 1945," he writes in an open letter to Tony Blair. "I refer to Guatemala, Indonesia, Chile, Greece, Uruguay, the Philippines, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey and El Salvador, for example.
"Hundreds of thousands of people have been murdered by these regimes, but the money, the resources, the equipment (of all kinds), the advice, the moral support, as it were, has come from successive U.S. administrations."
Before one writes this off as Bush-bashing, it is useful to note that it was written in 1998. In other editorials Pinter takes issue with the current administration's backing out of international weapons treaties, its development of advanced systems of weapons of mass destruction, its detention without trial of prisoners in Guantanamo, its insistence on immunity from the international criminal court and, most of all, its waging of the war in Iraq.
Pinter is clearly not a believer in the concept of American exceptionalism, the often disputed idea, attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville, that states that due to the circumstances and credo of its birth, America holds a unique place in the world as a force and beacon for humanity, freedom and safety. Pinter has a hard time squaring that with civilian deaths in Baghdad.
"Thousands upon thousands of civilians have been killed in Iraq and many thousands more mutilated for life," he writes. "We don't see the corpses of the mutilated children on television."
"Freedom, democracy and liberation," he writes. "These terms, as enunciated by Bush and Blair, essentially mean death, destruction and chaos."
These are harsh words, but they can be explained by Pinter's moral outrage, and his sense that, in a war between bombs and language, it is possible for the latter to win. Yet in order to do so language must become its own brutal incendiary device.
"There are no more words left to be said," he writes in "The Bombs," the collection's most brief and brutal poem. "All we have left are the bombs / Which burst out of our heads."
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