Ola Larsmo, member of PEN International’s Board and former President of Swedish PEN, has been at the PEN secretariat in London for a couple of days. He had just arrived when he already gave me a book that has just been published thanks to Swedish PEN’s initiative. The title talks about the convulsive times that we are living in Europe: How to defend democracy? And the subtitle shows that the book wants to be a good toolbox: Manual for Democrats.
Ola told me about the origin of the book: "We had been discussing Timothy Snyder's magnificent book On tyranny at Swedish PEN. Then last January, the President of Swedish PEN at the time, Elisabeth Åsbrink, received a request from one of the most famous survivors of the Holocaust in Sweden, Hédi Fried. She is an amazing woman, more than ninety years old, full of energy and very well-known in our country; she explained that she was very worried about the increase of the Anti-Semitism in Sweden, and she wanted for PEN to do something about it. Elisabeth had the idea of making a book similar to Snyder’s one: short and forceful and direct to the problem. Instead of being written by only one person, though, it would be written by several authors. She asked Sverker Sörlin and myself to help her gather the authors and publish the book. We asked twenty colleagues to answer to how to defend democracy: what needs to be specifically done. The book has just been published but more than 10,000 copies have already been sold."
How to defend democracy? has been published by Natur & Kultur, a member of the PEN International Publishers Circle which supports us very actively. The texts, brief as a punch, are very diverse. The title of the article by the poet Göran Greider, imperatively answers the question on how to defend democracy: Join a political party! Journalist Majgull Axelsson approaches it through the path of fiction, making the reader imagine in what exact moment through the loss of freedoms (and the increasing violence) will be necessary to pack their bags to scape Sweden and seek refuge in another country. At what point: what are the signs that will make you understand that you have to leave without delay. And Gellert Tamas, a Swedish writer of Hungarian origin, narrates the moving story of what he saw himself, since in the fall of 2015 he witnessed the arrival of a refugee family in Sweden, a couple with three children who landed in real despair; and on how many people helped them then, each one just knowing how to support them, helping the parents to find lodging, helping to care for the children, all moved by real compassion. That is how democracy is defended.
The question on the title of the book receives then answers from very different points of view. Ola Larsmo himself writes on the subject that he also spoke about during the last PEN congress in India: the hate speech; the sadly increasingly spread hate speech.
PEN's life has always been in tension between democracy and exile. Taking a picture of Ola Larsmo with the book, I asked him to stand in front of the poster of the exhibition of 'German PEN in exile', with the list of authors (such as Thomas Mann, Alfred Döblin, Ernst Bloch, Klaus Man...) that were part of that first PEN center of exiles with headquarters in Oxford Street.
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