In 1988, Harold Pinter accompanied Arthur Miller on a trip to study the plight of the Kurds trapped in the mountains that divide Turkey from Iraq.
The Kurds needed the solidarity of famous writers because the Turkish nationalist government in Ankara so hated their aspirations it banned the Kurdish language. The prospects for the largest stateless people on the planet were no better in the nearby dictatorships of Iran or Syria.
Meanwhile, in Baathist Iraq, just across the border from Pinter and Miller, and at the exact moment of their visit, Saddam Hussein was going beyond state censorship. In an echo of Adolf Hitler, he ordered that death squads and helicopters bearing poison gas deliver a final solution to Iraq’s Kurdish problem. Ali Hassan al-Majid, Saddam’s cousin, told his men that everyone captured in suspect villages “shall be detained and interrogated by the security services and those between the ages of 15 to 70 shall be executed after any useful information has been obtained from them”.
The most flattering image of the artist is that of the unacknowledged legislator, the speaker of truth to power. Pinter lived up to the high ideals by returning to Britain and writing Mountain Language, a short political play as relentless in its dissection of fanaticism and despair as Miller’s The Crucible. Unbending guards hold prisoners from a nameless race in a concentration camp. A sergeant bellows at a woman inmate:
Your language is forbidden.
It is dead.
No one is allowed to speak your
Your language no longer exists.
I saw it with Michael Gambon as the sergeant and could not help but admire Pinter. He had gone to talk to a wretched, forgotten people whose condition western governments found it politic to ignore. He offered them his pen, the best gift in his possession, and encapsulated their suffering and the sufferings of all those like them in just seven words:
Your language no longer exists.
A great dramatist? Maybe. But also slippery one. It was politic for Washington and London to ignore the plight of the Kurds in 1988 because Turkey was a member of Nato and Saddam’s Iraq was fighting Islamist Iran. Conversely, it was easy for Pinter and hundreds of thousands of anti-American leftists like him to play at being the true comrades of the Iraqi opposition. Criticising America and supporting the victims of America’s clients raised no hard questions.
After Saddam went from being a de facto western ally to western enemy, the world became more complicated. Not horribly complicated, in my view, if you accepted that genocide and oppression were wrong regardless of whether America turned a blind eye or not, but too complicated for Pinter to cope with.
Despite our differences, he was always a pleasure to meet. For all the bombast of his Private Eye caricature, I found him a rather shy man who preferred the company of old friends. Rather than play the literary lion in what passes for London society, he supported and helped sustain Red Pepper, a tiny and perennially unfashionable left-wing magazine, which is always about to close but somehow never does.
I knew how to draw him out of his shell, however. All I had to do was mention the next people to experience genocide after the Kurds – the Bosnian and Kosovo Muslims – and instantly a Pinteresque rant replaced the Pinteresque pause and I could marvel at the spectacle of a playwright exploding.
The mountain peoples of the former Yugoslavia did not receive solidarity from the author of Mountain Language, for the crass and shameful reason that the murderers and rapists from the Serb militias were America’s enemies rather than America’s allies.
When belatedly and after much shiftiness, the west intervened, Pinter joined the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic, a shady organisation made up Slavophile revisionists and western apologists. The Srebrenica massacre did not move him. The boxes of evidence the lawyers at the International Criminal Court in the Hague produced against Milosevic did not shake him.
Pinter was adamant that the Serbian national socialist was a victim rather than a victimiser. In a sentence as sinister as any in his fiction, he insisted that we should turn our eyes from the author of the first concentration camps Europe had seen in 50 years and recognise that the real enemy was an America which was telling the world: “Kiss my arse or I’ll kick your head in.”
Perhaps it was for this that the Swedes gave him the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In 2003, he and I argued in Red Pepper about whether to support the American and British attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein. I knew I was unlikely to change his mind; I understood that he wanted the annihilator of the mountain people of Kurdistan to be left in power for good as well as bad reasons. I still could not and cannot understand, however, why he and all the liberals and leftists like him did not oppose America while supporting Kurd and Arab Iraqis who wanted something better than the Baathist gas canister or al-Qaida suicide bomb.
I know you should never judge artists by their politics. Pinter’s double standards and defences of tyrants may not stop history seeing him as a great playwright any more than Auden’s support for communism and Yeats’s flirtation with fascism in the Thirties stopped them being great poets.
In 1940, Auden appeared to dismiss all doubts in his tribute to Yeats’s memory:
Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.
He regretted writing the stanza and cut it from later versions of the poem. “Time”, after all, has not pardoned Paul Claudel’s endorsement of Marshal Pétain. “Time”, indeed, barely notices him.
But it will, I think, pardon Harold Pinter, in part for the generosity of spirit which lay behind Mountain Language while remembering what few were prepared to say last week. Pinter’s darkness was a part of his greatness. He could dramatise men’s will to dominate and their betrayals so well because he knew them both too intimately.