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18 grit in the engine also, through the office in London, a team of journalists dedicated to monitoring the devious and sinister machinations of oppressive regimes worldwide.
In the 1980s, the magazine spread its wings. There were exposés of repression in Latin America and persecution in Africa (Kenya, Nigeria). Roa Bastos, who had suffered so badly in Paraguay, found a new champion. Nadine Gordimer, who had supported Index from the beginning, published a story about the romantic dilemmas of a secret policeman in South Africa. In Europe, Samuel Beckett became so engaged with the plight of Václav Havel that he dedicated a short play, ‘Catastrophe’, to his fellow playwright and allowed Index to publish it in its pages, another notable scoop. By the end of the 1980s, the idea of standing up for the abstract idea of ‘intellectual freedom’ by reporting censorship and publishing banned writing had become a recognised part of the common discourse within the libertarian community.
The influence of Index on the literary world has been at once subtle and impossible to overstate. In my mind, there is no doubt that its example became an inspiration to those British publishers, like Faber, Penguin and Picador, who (especially in the 1970s and 1980s) published banned or oppressed writers such as Milan Kundera, Václav Havel and Josef Skvorecky. The literature that came from behind the Iron Curtain added a new dimension to the reading of the West. Translations of novels like The Book of Laughter and Forgetting were so exceptional that the book would briefly become, ex officio, as it were, almost a part of the Anglo-American literary tradition.
The institutional importance of Index is hard to overstate because, in the words of André Gide, good sentiments do not usually generate good literature. Just because a writer is committed to fighting injustice in his or her society, there’s no guarantee that his or her work will have artistic value. But once the role of literature as ‘witness’ is established in the minds of the public, it makes it more difficult to dissociate literary merit and the social or political value of the text. Index provided a forum for banned writers to demonstrate the role of literature, both good and less good, as unsubmissive, contrarian, transcendent and instinctively transgressive.
Perhaps it was as well that the Index model was so firmly set by Spender and its founders. After 1989, the strength and security of WSI (notwithstanding a constant search for sponsors) was crucial. The fall of the Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union gave every indication that the raison d’être of Index – opposing Soviet oppression – had been trumped by History.
In fact, the reverse was the case. Writers and free expression continued to be persecuted worldwide. Russia did not cease to be despotic with the disbanding of the KGB. In some ways, the condition of everyday life for
Demonstrators, holding candles and pictures of murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, Helsinki, 24 November 2006 Credit: Mikko Stig/Rex Features