Imagined communities

EDINBURGH FESTIVAL 97: As the devolution debate intensifies, Boyd Tonkin reports from the Edinburgh Book Festival on how literature squares up to the creative and demonic faces of nationalism
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Prentice McHoan, the hero of Iain Banks's The Crow Road, watches the dark waters lap around a wrecked West of Scotland dock and thinks about his Argyll family's far-flung branches. "My veins seemed to run with ocean blood ... God, how we are connected to the world!" In Edinburgh to launch his new novel A Song of Stone, Prentice's creator - the Fife novelist with a fan-base of rock-star dimensions - argues that the devolution package he supports won't turn an outward-looking culture inwards. "You only have to look at the number of Scots who have to go elsewhere to earn a living," Banks explains, prior to giving his usual shaggily amiable performance to a worshipful full house in an airless tent in Charlotte Square. "That's not going to change. London alone has more than six million people, Scotland only five million."

The question of what happens to writers from small cultures with big neighbours has cropped up time and time again at this year's Edinburgh Book Festival. As Banks puts it, the referendum due on 11 September has "concentrated our minds wonderfully". Scores of writers from the minnows as well as the sharks among the nations have met and speechified (and plotted behind the scenes) at the PEN Congress that overlapped with the Festival itself. Piquantly, the PEN delegates downed their farewell buffet and politely watched some genteel Scottish dancing in the Parliament Hall. It was there, in 1707, that the local elite voted to give away their country's legislative sovereignty. Elsewhere, a cluster of Indian events over the weekend have helped focus attention on the downside of partitions. Meanwhile, Allan Massie - virtually the only up-front Unionist among Scottish novelists - has just damned the devolution settlement on offer as "a recipe for bad government".

In this two-faced city of doubles and secrets that bred Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde, both the creative and demonic sides of cultural nationalism have surfaced over the past week. On the one hand, the writer Frederick Lindsay speaks for many Scots when he contrasts the later years of WB Yeats - whose poetry blossomed into new forms in the fledgling Irish Free State - with the bitter decline of his great Scottish contemporary, Hugh MacDiarmid. "If Yeats flourished and MacDiarmid withered, part of the reason might be the different history of their countries." And Iain Banks hopes that, in a self-determining Scotland, a new "sense of pride" might replace the resentment of the Trainspotting generation, as the deprivation that spawned their fury fades away. "Speaking very optimistically, perhaps in 20 years' time we'll have to rebuild the housing schemes to understand it."

But nationalism also managed the odd ugly scowl among the smiling faces in Edinburgh. Backstage manoeuvres at the PEN Congress confirmed a split - common to most major international agencies - between a Francophone bloc in one camp and an Anglo-Saxon-Nordic axis in another. In one session, a Kurdish author (representing the planet's largest stateless nation) sprayed abuse over Turks as a whole, not just the Ankara regime. In reply, a Turkish delegate - himself a dissident - asked why it was that "when two fascists are fighting each other, we have to choose the weaker fascist" rather than none at all.

Fair or not, the anti-Turkish outburst came in the wake of years of torture and terror designed to obliterate Kurdish life and language. Fantasies of ethnic purity have had a dismayingly good decade. And no writer in Edinburgh exploded them more eloquently than the exiled Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah. In an age of mass migration, he argued, "the facts on the ground make nonsense of the outdated view that we belong in the territory of our ancestors". Speaking about the victims of ethnic cleansing in his home town in the disputed Ogaden region, he stressed that "those people may have been of `alien' origin, but they loved Kallafo more than those who claimed it, and destroyed it".

There's little need to fear that Troon will turn into Tuzla or Stirling into Sarajevo after a Yes-Yes vote next month. Except on its murky fringe, Scottish nationalism remains firmly non-ethnic (Scots of Asian background stood as SNP candidates in a couple of Glasgow seats on 1 May). All the same, the old Jacobite tunes of oppression and revolt still exert an almost masochistic pull. Paul Scott, the president of Scottish PEN and himself a leading figure in the SNP, maintains that "one of the troubles we have in Scotland is that we haven't been persecuted enough. If people had been shot for speaking Scots or Gaelic, we'd have clung to them with more determination." Tinting Scott's case is a (tartan) shade of the toxic Leninist belief that more misery breeds more militancy. In most cases, it just breeds barbarism or despair.

Besides, Scots know that the 1707 surrender in Parliament Hall was not the first or last act of consensual union. Iain Banks (whose books appeal so brilliantly to the frontierless freemasonry of dreamy, anxious youth) might have turned out to be a Hampshire author if his father, who worked for the Admiralty, had been stationed in Portsmouth. "My writing would certainly have been very different," he says, "but it's hard to say exactly how." Well, perhaps the large-scale Ordnance Survey map of Scotland on which he marks his patriotic holiday jaunts in different coloured pens would have shown the New Forest or Isle of Wight instead.

You can leave a small nation or a beleaguered culture easily enough, by choice, chance or dire necessity. But, as the writers in Edinburgh proved, that culture often won't leave you - or your heirs - alone. When the novelist Francisco Goldman travelled from the US to spend time on his mother's home turf in Guatemala, he aimed to become a free-floating Author without creed or cause. Then the intimate horror of the Guatemalan army's US-funded war against the country's landless poor erupted around him. "It's like the Larkin line, `They fuck you up, your mum and dad'," he explains. "Well, reality fucks you up, too."

Ties to a threatened people rule out indifference for a writer, however strong the urge to bury your roots. Recently, the Gaelic poet Angus Mackinnon enjoyed reading his work in Rome - whence legions marched to stamp out his tribe, two millennia ago. He still wishes that "I didn't always have to fight for my culture. I want to be an ordinary human being getting on with life."

In a nutshell, that sums up the theme of Bernardo Atxaga's The Lone Man: the Basque novelist's masterly portrayal of a retired ETA gunman whose long-hidden past catches up with him. For Atxaga - as for creative Scots or Somalis - belonging to a fragile culture where personal and political forces intermingle has precious little to do with the cosy comforts of folklore. Atxaga even revealed that he started writing precisely in order to skive off the trad Basque pursuits of dancing and hunting. Rather, home is where the heartbreak is. "I'd very much like to have a raincoat over my soul," he said, as the Edinburgh skies opened on cue above him, "but, with family and friends, it's not possible. You must become permeable."

Paul Scott joins other writers for a debate on `Scotland: a new dawn?' tomorrow (19 Aug) at 6.30pm in Charlotte Square Gardens. Details from the Edinburgh Book Festival: 0131-220 3991