Uncritical apologists for any cause run the risk of being exploited, writes Emer O'Kelly
A FIRST novel called Schopenhauer's Telescope won the Kerry Prize for fiction at Listowel Writers' Week in 2004. I remember because I was one of the judges. The book was, enthused my fellow judge John F Deane, faultless; and he was right. The competition was close and tough that year, but there was no doubt in either of our minds. Gerard Donovan was the winner of the Kerry Prize for Fiction. His novel was also long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.
When I met Donovan I blinked: he was wearing combat boots and military fatigues. Was this little man some kind of militarist, a counterpoint to the searing dissection of the evils of war that he'd written about in his novel?
No; Gerard Donovan was the nearest thing to a hermit that I've met. He lived in an isolated shack in up-state New York. His ambition was to earn enough money from his writing to establish a refuge for abandoned animals. It struck me that he possibly preferred animals to people.
If that was so, the past few weeks must have intensified the feeling for Gerard Donovan. Since I first met him, he has gone on to write three more novels, Dr Salt, Julius Winsome and Sunless (a reworking of Dr Salt) and a short story collection, Country of the Grand. All of them are dazzling, the work of an artist obsessed with reaching perfection and also, it's not too outrageous to suggest, obsessed with human justice and the pain of living.
They are certainly not the work of a man who would engage with or defend injustice and cruelty. Nor do the books suggest that anybody, or any group of people or nations, has a monopoly on suffering. Yet Dr Raymond Deane, on behalf of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, saw fit recently to post an open letter to Donovan on the internet, demanding that he cancel a planned visit to a literary festival in Israel. The open letter claimed that Donovan had "ignored" private communications (four emails to the University of Plymouth where Donovan used to be writer-in-residence), so he "resorted" to an open letter "requesting" the novelist to observe the "cultural boycott of Israel". Donovan was furious: he had cancelled his visit to Israel more than two months ago, but solely on the grounds of ill health (he has been suffering from cancer.) Because he had been ill, and further, since he lived in isolation, he had been unaware of a cultural boycott, he said, and even if he had knows of it, he would not have bowed to it: "They can brand me anything they want. I'm apolitical. Good people live everywhere."
It was the voice of the Gerard Donovan I remember. In any case, there is no cultural boycott operating against Israel. The Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC) would like one to be imposed. But that's not quite the same thing.
Raymond Deane has apologised to Gerard Donovan for the "misunderstanding". So his hands are as clean as they are of what Cathy Jordan of Dervish described as a "campaign of venom and an avalanche of negativity" aimed at them because they had intended to play a concert in Israel, and which made them feel forced to cancel. Her remarks, said Dr Deane, had nothing to do with the IPSC: she was really getting at supporters of Israel who had "targeted" the band after they had pulled out of their Israeli engagement. Mmmm. Everyone out of step except Raymond?
Dr Deane recently described the English novelist Howard Jacobson, winner two years ago of the Man Booker Prize, as a "dedicated Zionist for whom Israel can do no wrong". Jacobson is an inspired comic writer.
A longtime fan of his work, I had the pleasure of introducing him at the Dublin Writers' Festival several years before he won the Man Booker. We didn't discuss politics. But then I've never discussed politics with Raymond Deane on the few occasions I've met him. Nor do I think when I listen to his music (he's a composer of considerable note) that it's propagandist Palestinian music. It's just art, like Gerard Donovan's novels, and Howard Jacobson's novels.
Israel's treatment of the Palestinians disgusts most right-thinking people. But to be right-thinking requires us to be equally disgusted by the devastating rocket attacks against hapless civilians launched by the Palestinians.
There are very few evils so huge that they are entirely one-sided. Most people with a sense of history want desperately to love the Israelis, burdened as the civilised world is by the shadow of the Holocaust; but Israeli actions in relation to the Palestinians make that damned difficult.
Many people who feel that way also ask in the name of Jehovah, Allah, Jesus, Buddha, Shiva, and any other deity you care to mention, what justification there is for bombing teenagers at a beachside disco in Israel in the name of Palestinian statehood.
Raymond Deane frequently refers to Israel as a "rogue state". It was established under international law. The Republic of Ireland (then the Free State) was also established under international law: the Government of Ireland Act, ratified internationally. Raymond Deane is an Irishman, and I wonder how he'd feel if diehard British people took to calling Ireland "a rogue state"? Or, as a character in Gerard Donovan's Schopenhauer's Telescope says: "Flip a coin, and with the Germans it lands on Hitler or Beethoven. The worst and the best, that's the Germans for you. That's probably what the Celts were like too." Like the Israelis. Like the Palestinians.
Raymond Deane does not accept that going to Israel can be an "apolitical act". A person would be "exploited by the regime there". Certainly a possibility. Is there also a possibility that an uncritical apologist for the Palestinian cause might also be exploited in defence of that cause?
Or put it another way: is it any wonder that Gerard Donovan chooses to live in an isolated shack, cut off from the world of international politics?