Radio / Devils and the deep sea: Robert Hanks listens to Salman Rushdie make a stand for Machiavelli

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The Independent Culture
It's not often that programmes live up to their names as fully as Devil's Advocate (Radio 4, Tuesday) did last week. In the first of a new series, Great Satan Salman Rushdie stuck his neck out in defence of the original Old Nick, Niccolo Machiavelli. This was straying outside the programme's usual frame of reference - before now celebrities had been asked to put the case for fictional villains - but reality gave it an extra edge.

The reality involved was partly historical. Rushdie's case was that Machiavelli was, if not a fictional villain, fictitiously a villain; those who had accused him of being a fiend had either not read his books, or had failed to understand their satirical intent. He wasn't recommending realpolitik, just tactfully mocking the princes who practised it. Here another kind of reality came into the picture: Rushdie wasn't simply putting the case for a Renaissance Italian thinker. He was also pleading his own cause, still daring, after all the straight abuse he has endured, to be oblique.

The programme was not, perhaps, all it could have been. Kathy Lette, the presenter, was too determined to point out the irony of Rushdie's position, when it would have been fun to work it out for ourselves. She's too intent on being liked, as well; and since Rushdie has his own reasons for wanting to come across as an amiable sort of chap, the argument wasn't as spirited as it could have been. All the same, as an illustration of how one writer can speak to another across the years, it was intriguing and unusual.

At least it looked unusual until Friday evening, when Radio 3 broadcast Conrad: A Polish Writer as part of its Polish season. I'd like to play devil's advocate to the whole notion of seasons. Past Radio 3 seasons (the Japanese one a couple of years ago, the Scandinavian before that) have been remarkable for the number of really well-made, surprising features they have thrown up. They seem to offer producers a structure for channelling ideas and energy. What has been interesting has usually come not from what they've told you directly but from the sidelong glances at national character. The Polish season, though, seems not to have worked the same trick.

Matt Thompson's study of Conrad has been the outstanding feature so far, despite being only tangentially about Poland. The arresting opening, a sea shanty, signalled the programme's theme - the experience of exile. As Christopher Hope made clear, that is something universal. Hope's own exile is less complete than Conrad's - he has only left his homeland, South Africa, where Conrad left his mother tongue as well. Still, for all Conrad's public pronouncements that he was bound to the English language with hoops of steel, Hope made it plain that he was bound to Conrad by the sense of being tied up with an alien culture.

There were some interesting sidelights on Conrad's character - his affinity with French literature, and the suggestion that he applied the techniques of fiction to his experience just as much as he applied his experience to fiction. But what gave the programme its peculiar richness was the way it tested its subject's limits. It didn't just ignore Poland, at times you felt its real subject wasn't even Conrad. As Rushdie with Machiavelli, Hope grafted himself on to his material, and gave it a satisfyingly personal spin.