THE SHASHI THAROOR COLUMN
Diplomats as litterateurs
... are they uniquely suited provided they have the gift to begin with to be good creative writers?
MY July 18 column on Pablo Neruda has prompted a correspondent to ask for further reflections on Neruda's intriguing combination of poetry and diplomacy. "Surely there are others who have worked in the diplomatic field and produced memorable literature," he writes, adding flatteringly, "including yourself. Why not tell us more about them?"
Flattery, alas, usually works, so I thought I would try to rise to the challenge. Indeed Neruda's experience (writing poetry while stationed in an assortment of posts from Colombo to Barcelona and, as Ambassador, in France) was far from unique. The late, great Mexican poet Octavio Paz was not only a remarkably popular Ambassador to India but used his time here to write marvellous prose and poetry about our country, notably the brilliant The Monkey Grammarian (however, his final ode to our civilisation, In Light of India, was written well after his service in Delhi.) Paz and Neruda both won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and no one would argue that they weren't greater litterateurs than diplomats. But they were preceded to Stockholm by the 1960 Nobel laureate St.-John Perse, the nom de plume of one of the greatest French poets, who was also, as Marie-René Auguste Alexis Saint-Léger Léger, one of his country's most illustrious diplomats something that could not, strictly speaking, be said of either Neruda or Paz.
Indeed, if he hadn't written a single line of verse, Léger would be remembered as a legendary figure at the Quai d'Orsay. A career diplomat since 1904, he became one of his country's most highly-respected poets while mounting the hierarchy of his profession. He was made Secretary-General of the French Foreign Ministry in 1933, only to be dismissed by the collaborationist Vichy Government in 1940. Léger escaped daringly to the United States, where he advised FDR on French affairs; during the war his books were burned and banned in Nazi-occupied France, and Vichy stripped him of his French citizenship. This was restored upon liberation in 1945, and French diplomats still speak of him with reverence. But his literary standing was no less eminent. As a visionary poet of rare distinction, St.-John Perse was regarded so highly that no less a figure than T.S. Eliot translated him into English; his Swedish translator was the United Nations' highly literary Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjold.
Amazingly enough, the Nobelist after St.-John Perse was also a diplomat. The 1961 laureate was the Yugoslav Ivo Andric, a master craftsman (often compared to Tolstoy) whose great historical novels of Bosnia, especially The Bridge on the Drina and The Chronicles of Travnik, enjoyed a modest revival during the horrors of the Balkan wars in the 1990s. Andric was his country's Minister (the senior diplomat, one rank below Ambassador) in Berlin when war broke out in 1939, and spent much of the period of the war (with his country under German occupation) under house-arrest in Belgrade. Today the country he represented as a diplomat no longer exists, but at least three countries Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia are proud to lay claim to him as a vital part of their literary patrimony.
Four diplomats winning Nobel Prizes for Literature is a remarkable enough statistic, but the list overlooks other fine writer-diplomats of unarguable quality. The French playwright, poet and essayist Paul Claudel was a diplomat of distinction, serving as his country's Ambassador to Belgium, Japan and the United States, and is widely regarded today as one of the most important figures in French Catholic literature. France's former Foreign Minister, Dominique de Villepin, whose diplomatic postings included Delhi, is a superb poet and essayist, who famously worked on his poems while jet-setting around the world from one crisis spot to the next. The British diplomat Lawrence Durell wrote hilarious accounts of diplomatic life, but he is better remembered for his haunting Alexandria Quartet, four novels published between 1957 and 1960 that won him the highest literary reputation. The Mexican writer-diplomat Carlos Fuentes turned his postings in the U.S. to advantage in his perceptive evocations of both country's cultures, notably in The Old Gringo. The Sri Lankan diplomat Ediriweera Sarachchandra served his country as Ambassador in Paris while producing both novels and plays of great repute in his native land. Readers in Madras will remember Indran Amirthanayagam, the Sri Lankan-American poet who served in his adopted country's consulate there; Indran's late father Guy, an Ambassador of Sri Lanka himself, authored two well-reviewed novels.
Africa has been a rich source of literary diplomacy no surprise to those familiar with the talents of that continent's sophisticated elite. The poet and novelist (No Bride Price) David Rubadiri served Malawi twice as its Ambassador to the United Nations, with a long stint as an academic in exile in between. The U.N. also hosted Ghana's Kofi Awonoor, a novelist and poet who spearheaded the Organisation's fight against apartheid. Cameroon's Ferdinand Oyono rose to the rank of Foreign Minister but is better known in his own country as a novelist (The Old Man and the Medal). Perhaps the finest all-round talent was that of Davidson Nicol of Sierra Leone, who in addition to being his country's leading diplomat (serving as High Commissioner to London and Permanenet Representative to the U.N.) was a writer, poet, scientist and all-round renaissance man. (I am greatly indebted to my friend Olara Otunnu, Uganda's former Foreign Minister and a brilliant intellectual himself though not yet a novelist!
... and India's
The Indian diplomatic service is no exception to this remarkable tradition. My good friend the late Nina Sibal, who served the country with great distinction and elegance in postings as varied as Cairo and Paris, wrote two fine novels, of which Yatra deserves a new generation of readers. The Kerala novelist Mohana Chandran, many of whose bestsellers have been turned into successful Malayalam movies, lived a double life during his long diplomatic career as B.M.C. Nayar. The Ministry of External Affairs' able spokesman, Navtej Sarna, has authored a well-received first novel, We Weren't Lovers Like That, and promises more. (Often, those who are good with words in one way are likely to be good with them in another). The young diplomat Tiru Murti, who has just concluded a successful tour of duty in Washington as a close aide to Ambassador Lalit Mansingh, published a very good first novel before the end of his tenure.
Are diplomats uniquely suited provided they have the gift to begin with to be good creative writers? My friend and former United Nations colleague Jayantha Dhanapala, a former Sri Lankan Ambassador in Washington who is now his Government's envoy in the ongoing peace process, certainly thinks so. He argues that the professional diplomat, like the sensitive writer, has to be able to mix with both elites and masses; be firmly rooted in his own culture while open to the experience of others; have inner resources to fall back upon in coping with the isolation of a foreign posting (what Auden called "this nightmare of public solitude"). And most tellingly, as Dhanapala put it in a 1997 lecture, diplomats see creative writing as an escape valve for their professional compromises and frustrations "an act of expiation for the bruising of the soul they have experienced in their working life". The alternative, for less talented diplomats, has often been alcohol.
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