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Suppression, the canary in the literary coal mine of societies that value ideas they don’t control

February 24, 2023

Fat. Gross, obese, jowly, pot-bellied. Folds of quivering lard overflowing tight trousers and heading to the floor. Such words and phrases (mine) wouldn’t pass muster with the sensitivity editors of frightened publishers, if the recent bowdlerisation of Roald Dahl’s work is anything to go by.

I’ve just finished reading Colin Thubron’s The Lost Heart of Asia. It’s a description by someone widely considered to be one of the world’s greatest living travel writers of a journey through the Stans – those five states in Central Asia that won their independence after the fall of the Soviet Union. He wrote it a year after the USSR’s dissolution. It’s a sorry tale of loss, alienation and displacement. Ethnic groups, including many Russians, finding themselves on the wrong side of one border or another. Some regretting the loss of their status as Soviet citizens. Some fearing the nationalism of the newly formed republics. Others worried about Islam, always a mild influence, metamorphosing into the strict Sunni fundamentalism imported from other parts.

It’s a great read, yet I find myself wondering whether Thubron’s laser-sharp observations of the people he meets would pass the modern publisher’s health checks if he had tried to get it published today.

A few examples:

“The next moment my floor-lady appeared, agitated. An obese Russian babushka with hennaed curls, she too seemed to belong to a fading species.”

“They were stout and old, with thick bodies and course necks: a Russian couple with their small granddaughter. They wore an identical look of clouded defence. In their shared face a tundra of cheeks and jowls overpowered all else, isolating their vision and squeezing their mouth to a fleshy bud,”

“In the cubicles around us the Turcomans lay asleep on the railway’s flowery pillows. Their padded coats dangled decorously from every hook, but the faces coddled below were of Hunnish destroyers. Their beards forked angrily over the clean sheets.”

“‘Look at them,’ one of the Uzbeks said. ‘The heroes are still there but the Soviet Union’s gone!’ A delta of smile-lines flowed from his mouth and eyes, but he was not happy. He had the face of a wizened monkey”

“She had Polish, Ukrainian, Tartar and even Uzbek blood, she said, but she looked wholly Russian. She talked about books while her fingers writhed in her lap. She had contracted a synthetic, Slavic charm, whose veneer had eaten inward, like acid, until its lilting voice seemed to have become her own.”

“Some of the people around me were Uzbeks still – Turkestan was an early site of pilgrimage – but the stocky childlike Khazaks were all about. They looked guileless and enduring. Their faces, economical with low brows and close-set ears, seemed shaped for battling head winds. Epicanthic folds squeezed their eyes to humorous cracks, which sparkled out from a plane of thick-fleshed bones”

“The dwarfish Sadik, meanwhile, was insinuating his lit cigarette between the others’ dangling fingers, allowing each a puff before he retrieved it. From time to time he stared into my face with the half-evolved eyes of a lizard, then nudged me with a question. But his voice came always in a venal near-whisper as if everything he said must be secret or ugly.”

What I would give to be able to write phrases like those! Yet would a modern sensitivity editor not be tempted to excise the guts out of them in grounds of racial stereotyping, orientalism, cruel pictures of ugliness which might cause hurt to those portrayed, or worse? Would it be OK to describe someone’s features as “mongoloid”, as the author also does on a couple of occasions? At least, an editor might acknowledge, Thubron finds myriad words to describe fat people without using the word fat. So that’s alright then.

My point is that this is descriptive writing of the highest order, even if the style is somewhat high-brow and less accessible than that you would find in a children’s story by an author like Dahl. Would Thubron now feel the need to self-censor, as many writers claim they’re compelled to do today? I hope not, because in The Lost Heart of Asia he’s telling a story through his own perspective, as a European traveller with his own experience and prejudices. How else should he write? In the style of a sanitised Rough Guide?

The problem with censorship – be it legally, socially or commercially mandated – is and has always been where you draw the line. Such lines as exist are blurred by time and fashion. It’s not so long ago that countries like Ireland and the United Kingdom had official censors who prevented books like Joyce’s Ulysses and Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover from polluting the delicate sensibilities of the general population. Today such books are read with barely a flutter of outrage. Likewise, we condemn the racist undertones of Enid Blyton, who was the companion of millions of children like me, yet cheerfully gorge on the sexually explicit poetry of Catullus, whose work was once only available in heavily abridged versions.

Social censorship, by which I mean that carried out by influencers with varying perspectives, knows no lines. What was acceptable today is poisonous tomorrow, or vice versa. Which leaves publishers less willing to take risks with work that might ignite firestorms of condemnation in one quarter or another. In extreme cases, such as that of Salman Rushdie, such firestorms can turn lethal.

Authors are cancelled, banned and excoriated not just because of what they write, but often because of the views they express personally, or because of behaviour in their private lives that might be found wanting. J K Rowling is an obvious example because of her contribution to the trans “debate”.

For me, the irony is that very few writers make more than a modest living out of their work. Yet individuals, movements and political groups are lining up to pass judgement on them, not because they’re bad writers, but because such groups believe that those of us – adults and children alike – who bother to read need to be protected from ideas found unacceptable by one faction or another. In many cases, those condemning a book haven’t even bothered to read it. Are we moving towards the point where the libraries will only stock anodyne mush, just as was the case in the Soviet Union, whose collapse in Central Asia was so rivetingly captured by Thubron? And how many would-be Rowlings, McEwans and Rushdies will decide not to bother with writing careers because of all the grief they see others going through?

And all of this, it seems, is in the cause of one side of the freedom coin: freedom from, as opposed to freedom to. The same freedom to that allows both kids and adults to spend their days blasting people to death in video games or slumped mutely in front of gore-splattered Netflix series.

Sad, really, because reading books requires concentration and memory, whereas other media often just passes in front of you. The ability to focus for more than a few minutes, to make yourself understand what you’re taking in, often by re-reading passages, and to form your own opinion on what you’re reading, are surely skills that will outlast any fashion or trend. In fact, they’re true life skills that can make the difference between drudgery and fulfilment.

So why are we so afraid of the printed word? Because knowledge is power is the obvious answer. Yet knowledge isn’t permanent. It needs to be maintained, developed and remembered. Through books, that knowledge tends to be acquired slowly, in a manner that enables it to be imprinted in us more permanently than through the passing clouds of fashion – for better or for worse.

So to hell with the censors, whatever their motivation. My idea of freedom is to be able to debate any idea, endorse it or reject it without some self-appointed deus ex machina – be it politician, publisher or social media influencer – snuffing out that debate through the power of the group-thinking mob. Yes, there are some books that should never see the light of day, such as How to Make an H-Bomb. But even books banned for a generally unimpeachable reason will usually find their way into the hands of those who wish to read them or use them for other purposes, be it through the dark web or other modern versions of the samizdat methods used by Soviet dissidents.

Attempts to suppress ideas in so-called free countries show us that that totalitarianism exists on a spectrum, at one end of which sit countries such as China and Russia. And if you want to see a democracy in peril, you only have to look closely at prevalent attitudes towards the printed word.

So beware Britain, the United States and other self-described beacons of freedom. Your demagogues are already riding the waves of disapproval, bigotry and intolerance. How long will it be before at their instigation the bonfires of books are set alight?

There’s nothing new in what I’m saying here, and very little that won’t be disputed by those, such as the Governor of Florida, who have other opinions. But occasionally it helps to shout out ideas that one day might never be allowed to surface. Not to mention to show a little solidarity with talented writers yet unpublished whose work might never receive the recognition it deserves.

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