My friend and colleague Paul Verhaeghen is a truly talented individual indeed. Paul is a renowned psychologist, specializing in cognitive aging: what happens to older peoples’ working memory and long term memory as they age (OK, I copied this straight from his web site). This is all well and good, and I would normally be delighted to have talented colleagues, and not at all threatened by their accomplishments. Paul also plays a crucial role as co-organizer of Cafe Scientifique Syracuse, which is wonderful and also unthreatening, since I’m also involved in that.
But there’s this other thing. Something that just eats away at me, particularly given my love of contemporary literature and my secret writings that will never see the light of day. You see, Paul is an author. And not just any old author; Paul is an award winning author who critics have compared to David Foster Wallace – a favorite of mine (when I can get past the footnotes). Damn you Verhaeghen!!!! At least he’s not a nice guy with cool glasses, or this could really start to bother me.
In January, Paul accepted the Flemish Culture Award (Cultuurprijs) for Fiction – roughly the equivalent of the National Book Award in America, but given out once every three years. His winning novel, Omega Minor, was therefore considered to be the best work of Flemish fiction published between 2003 and 2005.
Unfortunately, my own linguistic limitations mean that I’m going to have to wait for the English translation, which Paul is doing himself and is due in 2007. This also means I can’t tell you much about the novel here, although you can read about it in this Syracuse University News article.
But there’s another aspect of Paul winning the Cultuurprijs that’s worth telling you about, and that’s his extraordinary acceptance speech. I won’t provide commentary, but here it is
Ladies and Gentlemen,
At the end of the nineties, when I started working on this book, I thought I was writing historical fiction. A story about the rise of fascism, a story about the totalitarian regime in the German Democratic Republic, a story about the horrors of war. A historical novel. It all happened a long time ago.
This is 2006.
When I was writing Omega Minor, I would never have guessed that the country I live in, the United States of America, would ever resemble Germany in the 1930s. Now there are concentration camps for presumed enemies of the regime â€” more than 83,000 people have been detained since 9/11, and 14,000 are still ‘in custody’ –, and just like the Nazis, who exported the horror to Poland, the American government detains these people in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Egypt, on Cuba, and in countless other places. There are again torture rooms, and eager torturers, and the architect of the legal underpinnings of torture is now attorney general.
In Omega Minor, I wrote: “What if the terrorist networks and the political reality overlap? What if the violence of the new state is the same as the violence of the vanquished Reich? What if those who liberated the camps fill them up again with ideological adversaries?” We have seen pictures of shiny happy torturers in Abu Ghraib, and hazy photographs of cages in GuantÃ¡namo Bay. We have heard the persistent rumors of secret CIA prisons in Romania and Poland, and with a signing statement the president of the United States of America has kept the door wide open for the use of torture against non-citizens â€” pushing aside both the Geneva convention and the laws of his own country.
The invasion, occupation, and destruction of Iraq was unnecessary, senseless, barbaric, and immoral. However one looks at it, the 28,293 Iraqi civilians â€” men, women, children â€” who died in war and the 2,247 American soldiers who gave their loves for a political lie that only served to keep a political dynasty in power are not a worthy monument for the three-thousand civilian victims of 9/11. Bring this up and you will be denounced as un-American.
Ladies and gentlemen, I have made the calculation. If I would accept the 12,500 euros associated with this award, about five-thousand dollars would flow into the American Treasury. I could pretend that this money will be used to finance public schools or medical care, or will help to alleviate the suffering of the forty million Americans who live below the poverty line. But who would I be kidding? The president just asked Congress for an extra 120 billion in emergency funds for the war. I gladly accept the award, but the money â€” no, that I cannot accept. This money would be paid for in human blood.
Omega Minor, very last sentences: “The world ever ends. It never ever ends.” When I wrote those words, they were meant to inspire hope. Now I am not so certain that the eternal recurrence of the same leaves any room for hope.
Friends. This world belongs to us; to all of us. Be vigilant. Do the right thing.
May you fare well.
— Paul Verhaeghen, Brussels, February 6, 2006 —