Today seems like a good day to write about persecution. Trying to imagine the agony of crucifixion, of nails through palms and feet, of torn flesh and muscle, of gradual dislocation as the legs start to give way and the body weight slowly pulls the shoulders from their sockets, I can’t help thinking again of the 50 writers whose hounding, silencing, imprisonment and torture is currently being remembered, one per day for 50 days, by International PEN and 26 at 26:50.
For those of us who spend much of our time crafting the anodyne language of business, this project is a stunning reminder of the real power of our basic resource – words. If we write something that the powers-that-be (for which read clients) don’t like, the worst that can happen to us is an argument over the bill. But for 26:50 we’ve been paired with people who had the courage to speak out and take the consequences, which in some cases was execution.
My subject, Xosé Luís Méndez Ferrín, got off relatively lightly by comparison with some of his fellow PEN writers. A novelist, poet and Galician nationalist, now widely regarded as the towering figure of Galician literature, he was detained three times by the Franco regime between 1967 and 1980 (with a certain irony since Franco himself was a native Galician). Yet Ferrín steadfastly refused to write in any other language than Galician, and during his second spell in jail created a fictional writer, Heriberto Bens, under whose name he later published – with a foreword by himself.
I don’t actually know how Ferrín fared during his spells in prison, so my 50-word sketch is largely metaphorical, but I hope he would find some kind of resonance there if he ever comes across it (born in 1938, he is still very much alive).
Writing this left me feeling that we live in such a desperately timid world; that we no longer dare speak our minds on so many of the issues that matter. Yet ours is a functioning liberal democracy where freedom of speech is still considered sacrosanct and we don’t live in fear of the three-am knock at the door. Nowhere is the language we use more vapid, more feeble, more lacking in conviction, than at work – where most of us spend the majority of our waking lives. On such a day as this I have to ask why? When did you last hear of a business writer being tortured?