BOOK REVIEW / Music for three voices: Paul Binding on the international literature conference at the ICA in June

READING his paper for the conference on National Identity and Literature on June 6, the Swedish novelist Per-Olov Enquist reminded his audience that the majority of good living Swedish writers came - like Sweden's renowned tennis players - not from the country's three large cities but from the provinces. When Enquist himself grew up he had access to three languages: his own dialect, Swedish itself (the language of education) and lastly the archaic language of the Bible, which played such a strong part in the remote northern community of Vasterbotten where he was born.

One language, then, for intimacy and gossip, one language for knowledge and ambition and public life, and one language for the accumulated, time-honoured wisdom on eternal matters.

For most English people this situation might seem strange. Yet we all live with these three languages (of intimate life, of learning, of hallowed tradition) and such occasions as the ICA's admirable Globe '92 series of talks brings this out as little else can.

For two weeks in June audiences filed into the ICA in the Mall, or into the larger Royal Geographical Society, to listen to an impressive group of writers. Margaret Atwood, Miroslav Holub, Joseph Brodksy, Czeslaw Milosz, Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, Ivan Klima, Mario Vargas Llosa and many others from all over the world converged on London to talk about books and the idea of books. The audience was able to engage, for a few moments, with writers from places they had never been and to which they might never go.

But something else happened, something to do with the three languages listed by Enquist. At a conference, obviously, it is the language of learning we hear, and it was both exhilarating and depressing to realise just how universal this language is. So much can be agreed on almost immediately - the agenda of open and educated people is easy to translate, no matter how unlikely the combination of nations and cultures represented on any one panel.

But the title of the conference, chaired by A S Byatt on June 6, reminded us of the dangers of such thinking. 'A Dialogue between Solitudes' - we were clearly in the domain of Enquist's first language, the one on which the majority of writers draws most heavily. They may long to be influential in the generally-acknowledged desideratum of public language; they may even be - as Ariel Dorfman, Enquist, Mary Dorsey and Knut Faldbakken demonstrated - good at addressing conferences. But they have chosen to write not only in order to confront debatable issues, but in response to the hot tangle of emotional needs and longings, those feelings of confusion and craving that everyone enters virtually at birth.

Yet even the most private concerns have a resonance and significance that crosses all frontiers. It was not difficult to respond to Toni Morrison's description of a sexual encounter, or to Michael Ondaatje's study of difficulties in communication.

No, the most difficult language is the third one, the voice of tradition. It is the least heard and yet, in a sense, its echoes haunt every other tongue. The rhythms and culture-honoured life of its phrasing are ours, yet not ours. It is with these difficulties that conferences such as Globe '92 are so helpful - indeed necessary.

An interesting instance of this was the address given by the leading Albanian writer Ismail Kadare. He spoke of the importance to his novels of the Albanian bessa or blood-feud, conditioned by an extraordinary and elaborate code of laws (the Canon). It is the central subject of what is possibly his finest novel, Broken April (Harvill, pounds 7.95). If one tended, as a reader, to see his preoccupation with the feud as part of some excursion into folklore, one was swiftly corrected by the man in person.

Kadare made it clear that for him the bessa lives - indeed it carries great weight as an embodiment of the Albanian temperament. Its very existence provided a stern challenge to the harsh Stalinism of Enver Hoxha.

One needed the presence of Kadare speaking on this matter. Conferences, after all, present you not only with the word but with the word made flesh. The writers invited to the ICA immediately became part of the audience's experience, and this very fact dissolved all those miles, all those profound, alienating cultural inheritances.

The success of this summer's series of talks - and I have heard no voice saying that it was other than a success - was chiefly thanks to Linda Brandon, director of talks at the ICA. Her presence throughout was a most vital and inspiring one; having shaped the conferences she informed the proceedings with intensity and nerve. To have to record that on June 25 she died - aged only 32, of cancer - is still something almost too painful to take in. Her appreciation of all those three human languages will not be forgotten by anyone who knew and worked with her.

Globe '92, sponsored by Waterstones, continues at the ICA in September with 'News from the Middle East' and 'News from the Arab World'.

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