Books: A Week in Books

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THE MAN from Liberation was baffled. Why, the French paper's London correspondent asked me a few days ago, had British writers said so little about the war with Serbia? True, Harold Pinter had railed against Uncle Sam, as ever. True, the Royal Court's Class of '68 (David Edgar et al) had whacked off its pro forma letters of outrage. Otherwise, those despised journalists - with their readers - have made most of the moral running here.

This was not the first time that the silence of our authors had been pointed out to me. On the first day of the bombing, I went to the launch of the British Council's latest anthology. Here was a cross-section of the brightest younger stars in British writing, gathered on the night their nation launched a perilous new war. As a senior poet noted in dismay, no one present seemed to give a damn.

For once, they really do order these things better in France. There, Kosovo has re-ignited the fires of principled debate in a way that recalls the great days when Sartre slugged it out with Camus over the Gulag or Algeria. Fierce articles pro or contra Nato's war have shot from intellectual leaders: Philippe Sollers, Tzvetan Todorov, Bernard-Henri Levy, and so on.

Todorov, especially, quite refutes the lazy British prejudice that a background in structuralist theory turns one into a demonic dandy a la Michel Foucault. In fact, the author of The Poetics of Prose has emerged of late as one of Europe's subtlest ethical thinkers. His moving account of "moral life in the concentration camps", Facing the Extreme (Weidenfeld, pounds 20) underpins his views on ex-Yugoslavia. (By the way, the translation of this luminous work came here a full eight years late.)

Meanwhile, our own know-nothing literati can take refuge in that famous irony - the true English Ideology, one which unites Cool Brit and Young Fogey. Sometimes, I wish that British writers could take the odd holiday from irony. Of course, this war looks very messy, complex and ambiguous. But I presumed that writers did messiness, complexity and ambiguity. I thought that was what they were for. As of now, their silence is more deafening than bombs over Belgrade.