LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 25, No.3 - Fall 1979
Editor of this issue: Jonas Zdanys
Copyright © 1979 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
A CONVERSATION WITH TOMAS VENCLOVA*
Kazys Bradûnas: It's good to be able to talk to you so soon after your return from your trip to Australia and the P.E.N. Congress. Tell me, Tomas, do people in Lithuania know about the function of P.E.N., and how is its existence viewed officially and unofficially?
Tomas Venclova: P.E.N., as you know, is an international fellowship or society of writers which has been in existence for over fifty years. Its first president was John Galsworthy. Today, P.E.N. centers operate in sixty-two countries, and have about eight thousand members, among them Heinrich Boell, Eugene Ionesco, Arthur Miller, John Updike, Ignazio Silone, and Czeslaw Milosz. The P.E.N. Congress each year is held in a different country. By the way, there are P.E.N. centers in Eastern Europe—in Poland, for example; their activities there, of course, are constrained, but they still manage to maintain a certain degree of independence.
Most writers in Lithuania have probably heard of P.E.N., but very little information about the Club manages to get through. One writer or another who has managed to visit the West brings back news. Many proudly mention the fact that Algirdas Landsbergis (Lithuanian playwright and novelist and Professor of Social Sciences at Fairleigh Dickinson University— Editor's Note) holds a position of responsibility. Lately, the official press has been mentioning P.E.N. more often, because the Soviet Union clearly is interested in establishing its own P.E.N. Center (and perhaps centers in all the Republics, including occupied Lithuania). I don't think anything is going to come of that, though, because the official USSR Writers' Union has nothing in common with the principles of P.E.N. International. The Writers' Union demonstrated that when it threw out of its ranks two winners of the Nobel Prize—Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn—and more than one other good writer. To most members of P.E.N.—though, it's true, not to all— those facts are perfectly clear. A logical and natural thing to do would be to establish a P.E.N. center only for dissident Soviet writers. To such a center could belong those members of the Writers' Union, and even nonmembers, who have a serious literary reputation and who affirm democratic principles. Of course, because of government interference the establishment of such a center seems completely unrealistic (though you never can tell . . .). The French P.E.N. Center has accepted about ten dissident Soviet writers who are still living in their own lands—people like Vladimov, Kornilov, Kopelev, and others—and the famous Yugoslav dissident, Michailov. That membership gives them some small measure of protection from repression, though not always: K. Bogatyriov, who was recently murdered in Moscow, I believe, was also a member of P.E.N.
In unofficial circles, the activities of P.E.N., on the whole, are greatly approved.
Kazys Bradûnas: Since reaching the West, you very quickly became a member of P.E.N. How did you happen to become a member and what was the procedure you followed? How do you personally feel about P.E.N.'s activities and function?
Tomas Venclova: In all probability, I would have become a member of P.E.N. when I was still in Lithuania if I had stayed there. (In Moscow I had some confidential conversations about that matter.) When I reached the West I contacted our colleague Algirdas Landsbergis, submitted an application, and was immediately accepted. The procedure was quite simple. I am now a member of the P.E.N. American branch of the Centre for Writers in Exile. I view my becoming a member of P.E.N. a natural thing, because I have long been a believer in and supporter of the Club's principles.
Kazys Bradûnas: When and where in Australia was the most recent P.E.N. Congress held? How many participants were there, and where were they from? What took place at the Congress and how did the discussions fare?
Tomas Venclova: The Congress was in Sydney, from December 11-17. There were, I believe, more than two hundred participants; unfortunately, not everyone who wanted to go could travel that far. The morning sessions were devoted to discussions about P.E.N.'s internal affairs. The most important topics of the evening sessions were about the ties between European and Asian literatures, their interaction and mutual enrichment, the development of new literatures in the Pacific. Those were interesting problems, though, because I am not a student of the Orient, I was not always able to understand them completely. But, in any case, Australia, because of its geographic location, was a good place to discuss such themes. The Japanese presented a great many papers, though there were some even more exotic presentations—for example, about the literature of the Maori, the aboriginal people of New Zealand.
Kazys Bradûnas: What is the situation of the Baltic countries in P.E.N.?
Tomas Venclova: Since the days of independence, there have been P.E.N. centers in Latvia and Estonia and they have continued their activities in exile. The Estonian Center is a unique phenomenon: it has forty-five members and has published a few thousand books. In addition, today in Estonia you could meet writers who had been members of P.E.N. before the war and who have not given up that affiliation. I knew one of them—V. Adams. The Latvian Center is smaller—it has, I believe, about twenty members. Alas, there was no Lithuanian P.E.N. Center when the country was independent, and there is no such Lithuanian center now, even though Vydûnas (Lithuanian poet, dramatist, and philosopher, 1868-?) was a member. Several Lithuanian writers now are members of the Centre for Writers in Exile. There could be more of them: P.E.N. is a good forum through which we can bring to the attention of the world our nation and our culture. And we can learn a great deal. At the Congress were official representatives of the P.E.N. Estonian Center, delegates Asta Willmann-Linnolt and Peeter Lindsaar, and Latvian delegate Rozitis. I was the only Lithuanian. Among other things, the official representatives from the Soviet Union declared that they would agree to establish a P.E.N. center only when the current Latvian and Estonian Centers were expelled. That arrogant demand severely contradicts the spirit of P.E.N., and the Club's statutes. The demand alone blocks the way for the participation of the Soviet Union in the activities of P.E.N. I can firmly state that that demand cannot and will not be satisfied.
Kazys Bradûnas: What did you find most interesting at that literary conference?
Tomas Venclova: It was most interesting to meet a great many writers, including the current president of P.E.N., Mario Vargas Llosa, a few of whose novels have been translated and published in Lithuania. I was very happy to see Australian poet Judith Wright (whose work I also read in Lithuania, and which I value), critic and publisher Gero von Wipert, and others. I talked a great deal (especially about Lithuania's situation) with Czech dissident Pavel Tigrid, who gave a fine talk at the Congress. Everyone there was especially impressed by one Vietnamese writer (she had fought on the side of the Viet Cong, was forced to emigrate after the Communist victory, and told many bitter truths about the present repressive Vietnamese system).
The most important underlying principle of P.E.N. is freedom of thought, word, information, and travel, and that's why P.E.N. has always supported political prisoners and has provided much assistance. The Congress unanimously selected as its guest of honor Ukrainian dissident G. Snegiriov, whose work has appeared in Kontinent and who is now in prison, and imprisoned leftist Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer. In that way, P.E.N. showed its impartiality, political neutrality, and tolerance, qualities which are truly valuable in the world today.
Arthur Miller, who could not attend, in a letter reminded the Congress of the difficult situation of Czech writers. Three members of the USSR Writers' Union had come to the Congress as observers. To put it nicely, they are men who do not have a good name among us. Because of the election of Snegiriov and similar things, they became "offended" and did not attend the Congress, even though we could all see them walking through the streets of Sydney.
Kazys Bradûnas: You no doubt had the opportunity to meet Lithuanians in Australia. What were your impressions?
Tomas Venclova: In addition to Sydney, I visited Australia's capital, Canberra, Adelaide, Melbourne, and Hobart, the capital of Tasmania. Everywhere, I read papers to Lithuanians and to the Australian public. Long stories about that were published in Australia's largest newspapers: The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age (Melbourne), The Advertiser (Adelaide), The Mercury (Hobart). I think I managed to make known Lithuania's name and her difficulties. I gave poetry readings in Sydney and Adelaide. I visited museums, historical places, game preserves. On the way home I stopped in New Zealand, where I also met some Lithuanians and visited the geysers at Rotorua. I spent two days in Tahiti. Not long ago I was a citizen of the Soviet Union, and the possibility of such a trip, of course, even now seems to me to be a kind of fairy-tale.
The Lithuanians of Australia made a good impression—though there aren't many of them, they have a very active cultural life, are quite markedly informed and clear-headed, and, it seems, act out a significant role in the life of the country as a whole, even making inroads in politics. I would like to thank all those who welcomed me, but I would have to mention several dozen names . . .
Kazys Bradûnas: Before flying to Australia you were in Europe, where you testified at the so-called Sakharov Tribunal in Rome. What do you think of that sort of action and the recent Tribunal's meeting?
Tomas Venclova: That's right. I went to Australia, you might say, straight from Rome. I spent the last days of November (1977) there. At the Sakharov hearings, the so-called tribunal, I met many well-known and many less well-known dissidents from Moscow, Leningrad, the Ukraine, and from elsewhere. For the first time in my life I slept in a hotel guarded by armed carabinieri (the Tribunal participants, and especially its chairman, Simon Wiesanthal, were under the threat of terrorist attack). In a word, it was all very interesting.
The hearings, as they are said to have been, were representative and serious. I had the opportunity to speak twice—about the religious situation in Lithuania and about Viktoras Petkus (the Lithuanian Catholic activist recently sentenced to 15 years in a Soviet Gulag camp). Not being a Catholic activist myself, I relied on the material in the Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania, whose accuracy is trusted by everyone, and on various documents in the possession of the Lithuanian Helsinki group. I talked not only about the fate of Catholics, but also about other religions, about which the Chronicle, ex definitione, does not write, even though they are in the same difficult straits. I mentioned that forced state atheism in the final analysis affects the rights of the atheists themselves. The Italian press in some instances did not report my testimony correctly. For example, the newspapers reported that in Lithuania someone was suffering repressions because of attempts to distribute the Pope's encyclicals. I never said that, and I have no information about it. I wouldn't be surprised if that was the truth, but it is the principle of the Helsinki group to publicize only verified facts.
Of course, I also visited Rome and saw as much as I could in four days. I even saw Pope Paul VI from a distance.
Kazys Bradûnas: After such a "vacation" you again have to return to your work at UCLA. In what field are you engaged and how are things going, generally?
Tomas Venclova: I teach Lithuanian to Lithuanian and American students, and lecture in English on semiotics (at Berkeley I still lectured in Russian). Things are going well. I'm always waiting for my situation to get worse, but for the time being everything just gets better. I expected much less from the West than I have received.
Translated by Jonas Zdanys
* This conversation originally appeared in Draugas, 17 (3), 1978.