Thursday, November 1, 2012

(Interview) War and cultural destruction: the carnage report interviews Fernando Baez

The Carnage Report recently caught up with celebrated writer and award winning essayist Fernando Baez, author of the bestseller 'A universal history of the destruction of books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern Iraq' (2002). We were lucky enough to seal an interview with the international authority on cultural destruction and below was the result. Enjoy!

1.    What drives you to write?

I write because I feel like I must. I'm always drawn to either write down my ideas or imagine being in a different time or place.

2.    Have any writers influenced your work?

Yes. I read without following manuals, card catalogues, guides, critical anthologies, books labeled “classics,” or recommendations for weekend reading.

3.    Who are your favourite writers, if any?

Rafael de Nogales Méndez, George Orwell, Noam Chomsky, Borges, Hemingway.

4.    Your most of your work has focused on the theme of cultural destruction, what interests you most about this theme?

I was four or five years old and lived in an honorable state of poverty, which had granted me as a last refuge the public library building in my hometown. My father was an honest–that is, unemployed–lawyer, and my mother, born in La Palma, in the Canary Islands, had to work all day in a notions shop weaving and unweaving, like the wife of that great traveler Odysseus. Which meant they had to leave me in the house that constituted the library in the old town of San Félix in storied Guayana, Venezuela. There she got discrete assistance from a widowed aunt related to her by marriage who for a time was the establishment’s strict secretary. So I spent whole days under the indifferent protection of this kind woman in the moth eaten stacks among scores of volumes.

That happiness was abruptly interrupted because the Caroní River, one of the Orinoco’s tributaries, overflowed its banks without warning and flooded the town, carrying off with it the papers that constituted the object of my curiosity. It took away every volume. So I was left without my sanctuarity and lost part of my childhood in that small library, all washed away by the dark waters. Sometimes on the nights that followed, I would see in dreams how Stevenson’s Treasure Island sank while one of Shakespeare’s plays floated.

 5.    In an article by the Asia Times, you stated that the United States had a duty to protect the cultural heritage of Iraq. Do you think a nation at war can really protect the cultural heritage of a nation it wages war against?

Yes. U.S. troops were responsible for violating the Hague Convention of 1954 by not protecting cultural installations during the seizure of Baghdad.

6.    In the same article you stated that the worst enemies of book were intellectuals, to which there is some truth. Are there any other enemies of the written word you can name?

In totalitarianism, politics and ideology are at the service of rituals that seek to reinvent history by the most brutal ways: the collectivist temptation, classicism  the formation of millennial utopias, and precise, bureaucratic, servile despotism, the rejection of the other’s memory. Even democratic societies can become totalitarian when they reduce their identity by accusations of sedition, and become exclusionary.

7.    While you have documented the destruction of books and other cultural artifacts  do you think, in the final analysis that culture that is practiced will always take precedence over culture that is recorded?

In 1984, George Orwell describes a totalitarian state where an official branch of government is dedicated to finding and erasing the past. Books are rewritten, and the original versions destroyed in secret furnaces in order to save society from the enemy. There is one determining aspect here: Control is not established unless there is a conviction involved. There is no religious, political, or military hegemony without cultural hegemony. Those who destroy books and libraries know what they are doing. Their objective has always been clear: intimidate, erase motivation, demoralize, enhance historical oblivion, diminish resistance, and, above all, foment doubt.

8.    Last question, do you have any new projects in the works or books soon to be released?

 Yes. “Lost wonders of the world. A Brief History of Civilization's Greatest Cultural Catastrophes” (2012):

Thank you very much, Fernando.

Check out Fernando Baez's site here

you can buy Fernando Baez's Magnum Opus   'A universal history of the destruction of books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern Iraq' (2002) here  

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