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Writing in the shadow of totalitarianism

Patrick McGuinness, guest author of the upcoming Malta Book Festival, speaks to The Sunday Times of Malta in an exclusive interview.

Patrick McGuinness

Patrick McGuinness

The British academic and writer Patrick McGuinness, who will be among the special guests for this year’s edition of the Malta Book Festival, was born in Tunisia in 1968 to a Belgian French-speaking mother and an English father of Irish descent, he grew up in Belgium and also lived for periods in Venezuela, Iran, Romania and the UK.

It is, in fact, the time that he spent in Romania as a witness of the downfall of the communist regime that provided invaluable material for his first novel, The Last Hundred Years, which he will present during the Malta Book Festival between November 9 and 13.

He is also expected to participate along with three other guests in a conference on literature and totalitarianism.

Being his first time in Malta, McGuinness says he is looking forward to learning about the country and its culture. He will certainly have the best possible encounter with Maltese culture at the Malta Book Festival which typically draws a good number of local writers, poets, academics and bookworms.

As an experienced traveller with expat experience in countries ruled by authoritarian systems, McGuinness takes a naunced approach to the topic of the role of literature in oppressive political systems. He suggests that writers in the so-called ‘free world’ tend to patronise their counterparts living under dictatorships.

The latter, he claims, have the right to chose any role they feel they should take on, just like any other writer anywhere in the world, irrespective of any prescribed roles external viewers might assign them.

Regarding the power of controversy, he is simply unimpressed. “Controversy is not a value I recognise. If it isn’t any good, it can be as controversial as it likes, but I’m not interested in it.”

He does concede, however, that culture tends to acquire special meaning and status under a dictatorship. However, that does not in any way imply that the literature produced will be of greater value than that produced in ‘free cultures.’

On a wider political view, the author also takes exception to the 19th-century humanist perception of progress as an irreversible evolution of gains. Gains which he claims are in reality nothing more than temporary positions. “But ISIS, Putin, the rise of the far right, Saudi Arabian theocracy, Brexit, post-truth politics and Donald Trump, etc are as ‘modern’ as anything liberal democracy has brought us.”

Progress is precious then because it is precarious and should not be taken for granted or assumed to occur without fail along with the passage of time.

The corollary, of course, is that totalitarianism never really becomes dated. A ‘return’ to such systems should be considered a possibility and the threats facing liberal democracy should be taken very seriously.

Visitors to the festival can meet Patrick McGuinness both at the conference on Literature and Totalitarianism, which will take place on November 9, or the day after at the event which will be held in his honour and during which the author will discuss his novel with James Corby and answer questions from the audience.

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