They Shoot Writers, Don't They, edited by George Theiner. London and Boston: Faber and Faber. 199 pp. $6.95. As writers in our time play the role of witness, they bear testimony in their books to a play they did not choose. Kafka's statement that ``a book must be the ax for the frozen sea inside us'' tells in haunting tones about censored writers in oppressive countries. In ``They Shoot Writers, Don't They?'', George Theiner, editor of the monthly Index on Censorship, draws together some of the censored writers who have published in the Index.
The title of the book ``They Shoot Writers, Don't They?'' resembles the title of the movie ``They Shoot Horses, Don't They?'' The movie recalls the dance marathons of the 1930s during the depression when people entered the marathons for money. They would dance until exhaustion demoralized them. In ``They Shoot Writers, Don't They,'' censored writers describe the deceptive and seemingly civilized ways interrogators force writers into silence. Some of them explore how writing maintained their integrity despite restraints.
In Theiner's book, each writer speaks of his or her relation to self-expression, to scenes between the writer and censor, and to their own imprisonment and the freedom of others. In the introductory essays, Stephen Spender and Michael Scammell, a few of the founders of the Index, speak of how it has served as a forum for censored writers and how it acts as an expression of solidarity with artists throughout the world.
Both the essays and the poems offer a way of understanding the function of the Index. Each essay reflects some cultural as well as individual response to repression. In one essay, a Czech writer draws upon a fictional dialogue between the interrogator and the writer (compared to the puppet dancer). A more theoretical essay by Andre Brink presents the political issues of censorship in a treatise that looks at censorship as an unannounced part of our culture. George Mangakis, a Greek professor of law, describes, in his ``Letter to Europeans,'' forms of mental deprivation in prison. He speaks of those moments when one human face represents all humanity and when prisoners sing to keep themselves from going mad.
In all of the essays and poems, the writers' encounters with censorship evoke the memory of Kafka's statement that a ``book must be the ax for the frozen sea inside us.'' Other writers explore through poetic images the divisive nature of their culture. In ``My Ten Censored Years,'' Stansilaw Baranczak shows how, through the words ``liver sausage,'' a series of ideological schools tried to butcher the meaning of poems that never had an ideology. His essay, more than some of the others,reveals the need for an independent literary journal, like the Index, outside the censored countries.
Milan Kundera, in his essay ``Comedy Is Everywhere,'' describes the novel's function as a literary genre. He concludes ``Today, when politics have become religion, I see the novel as one of the last forms of atheism.'' An Argentine writer speaks of how language becomes a rebellion against oppression.
One is reminded that the forms of punishment in Dante's Inferno bear some resemblance to sin. Still, today as censorship silences voices, freedom becomes the language that allows the writer, the witness, to speak of what and how he or she sees.