#100PENMembers No. 41: Harold Pinter

Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter was one of PEN’s most active and most recognisable members in the late Twentieth Century, campaigning for writers in prison across the world and raising the profile of key free expression causes through his speeches and his international visits.

A lifelong nonconformist, Pinter became a vocal critic of political oppression and tyranny in the 1970s, often citing the overthrow of President Allende in Chile and the imprisonment of Vladimir Bukovsky in Russia as turning points in his political awakening. 

In 1985, he visited Turkey with Arthur Miller on behalf of International PEN, to verify reports of torture and false imprisonment. Recalling a visit to the American Ambassador in Turkey, Pinter recalls questioning the man on the complicity of America in the oppressive and torturous Turkish regime. The Ambassador replied that Pinter did not understand the ‘military and political realities’ of the situation. Pinter – referencing the torture taking place in Turkish jails at the time – responded: ‘The reality to which I am referring, I replied, is that of the electric current attached to your genitals.’ The ambassador stormed out.

He continues, ‘”I think I’ve been thrown out”, I said. “I’ll come with you”, Arthur said, without hesitation. Being thrown out of the US embassy in Ankara with Arthur Miller — a voluntary exile – was one of the proudest moments in my life.’

In 1989 he and his wife Lady Antonia Fraser visited another of our #100PENMembers and fellow playwright, Václav Havel, at his home in Bohemia. The visit showed support for Havel, himself a frequently imprisoned writer, incarcerated for his critique of the Communist Czech government. Following Pinter’s death, Havel hailed his friend’s frequent shows of public support, even during the dark days of his imprisonment and persecution.

Pinter and Havel

In 1991 Pinter, along with Martin Amis, David Edgar and Ian McEwan came together to draw attention to the plight of the Palestinian writer Abbas Cheblak after the British government began to enact a new policy which involved the detainment and deportation of Iraqi and Palestinian writers from the UK. Cheblak was an outspoken critic of Saddam Hussein and faced death or imprisonment if returned to his home country. Writing a public letter to the Independent newspaper, the group managed to secure a reprieve for Cheblak and drew attention to the issue, forcing the government to rethink its strategy in the face of public opposition. Pinter’s quick action and ability to foresee the consequences of deporting exiled Palestinians and Iraqis, many of whom were dissidents, almost certainly saved lives.

In 2005 Pinter won the Nobel Prize for Literature, as a writer ‘who in his plays uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression’s closed rooms.’

In his lecture he sought to draw attention to the way in which political lies – particularly those of Britain and America at the time – were being obscured by the banality of contemporary political discourse, warning that ‘[p]olitical language, as used by politicians, does not venture into any of this territory [of truth] since the majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. 

‘To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.’

Pinter – by then a Vice President of English PEN – died in 2008.

In 2009 PEN launched the PEN Pinter Prize and the Pinter International Courage Award to honour his contribution to the organisation and to free expression campaigning globally.

The award is given to a British writer or writer resident in Britain who, in the words of Pinter’s Nobel speech [‘Art, Truth and Politics’], casts an unflinching, unswerving’ gaze on the world and shows ‘a fierce, intellectual determination…to define the real truth of our lives and societies.’

The Prize is shared with an International Writer of Courage selected by PEN’s Writers at Risk Committee and the winner of the Pinter Prize. This enables the prize winner to use their position and standing to shine a spotlight on a writer or writers elsewhere in the world and to draw public attention to their cause. This, of course, is very much inkeeping with Pinter’s own life, in which he used the platform granted by his outstanding literary contribution to bring issues of free expression, censorship and human rights into the public eye.

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