David Grossman calls on writers to bear witness to pandemic

Alison Flood
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Thomas Lohnes/EPA</span>
Photograph: Thomas Lohnes/EPA

The celebrated Israeli novelist David Grossman has called on his fellow writers to be “trenchant witnesses” to the Covid-19 pandemic, and to “sound warnings in every place” where civil and human rights are threatened as a result of the crisis.

The author and peace activist was speaking from his home outside Jerusalem on Tuesday at the launch of the Frankfurt book fair, which opens on Wednesday. Usually the world’s largest trade publishing event, with more than a quarter of a million visitors, this year the event is mostly a digital occasion, with more than 4,400 online exhibitors from 103 countries, and 2,100 virtual events during the week of the fair.

The winner of the Man Booker International prize for his novel A Horse Walks Into a Bar, Grossman suggested authors can “ease the burden” of the coronavirus outbreak with their “power of observation”.

“Most writers and poets I know – including myself – are embarrassingly clumsy when it comes to engaging with reality. But we do know how to observe it,” he said. “You can’t take that away from us. And there is much to observe, much to put into words … Millions have lost – and are yet to lose – their livelihoods. In many countries, the middle class will become poor, and the poor will become destitute. Deprivation and perhaps starvation will propel yet more waves of migration.”

As the pandemic continues, Grossman predicted “a surge of nationalism, of religious fundamentalism, of xenophobia and racism, of severe damage to democracy and civil rights” which the literary world will record.

“We shall sound warnings in every place where our language is corrupted, where we are subjected to linguistic and cognitive manipulations,” the novelist said. “Where our civil rights, and our human rights, are threatened. I say this as a citizen of the world, but also as an Israeli watching the developments in my country with deep concern.”

Most of us feel helpless in the face of a devastating event such as the Covid-19 pandemic, he added. “To look straight at it, and at its repercussions, is almost like looking straight at the sun. But many of us have frequently looked into one sun or another, and told of what we saw. That is the nature of our strange profession … We will be witnesses: active, curious witnesses. Trenchant witnesses.”

As global deaths from Covid-19 pass one million, Grossman pointed to the “chilling” comment attributed to Stalin, that “a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic”.

“These words allude to what we do in our work,” he said. “We, authors and poets, people of literature, struggle to extricate the drama of the individual, the uniqueness and singularity of the individual, from dead statistics.”

Grossman’s work, which includes fiction, non-fiction and children’s books, has been translated into 36 languages. He is the winner of literary awards including the French Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Germany’s Buxtehuder Bulle, the Frankfurt peace prize, and Israel’s Emet prize.