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'Zugzwang' - a metaphor for our times?

 Ronan Bennett gave an inspiring lecture as part of Feile an Phobail.

The former Long Kesh prisoner, author and now writer of his first hundred million dollar movie starring Johnny Depp, gave fascinating insights into the writer's world and its relationship to the real world.

The lecture opened with a clip from the powerful television series written by Bennett, '10 days to war', which has already featured in this blog. In the clip, we watched British intelligence and diplomatic figures seeking to sell the idea of weapons of mass destruction and the (ultimately, failed) second UN resolution to other countries' ambassadors – the resistance to their rhetoric and pressure tactics voiced mainly by the late Mexican Ambassador to the UN, Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, who urged those against the war to stick together and to act together

Mixing the personal and the political is essential in writing, Bennett said: when an audience member asked if he would ever write something explicitly autobiographical, he thought not, but it is clear that in some ways he is always writing about issues close to home or close to himself. Similarly, writing set in other times may still be speaking about the issues of today. Bennett described reading an article by Tony Blair in the 'Big Issue', in which he confessed his dislike, even fear, of those squeegee merchants who will wash your windscreen at traffic lights. In describing them, Blair had used the word 'intimidating'. Bennett said that it was this article which fed into his novel, 'Havoc in its Third Year', set in puritan 17th century England, with its focus on fanaticism and intolerance; a world where supposedly higher moral standards are imposed by coercion, and outsiders and easy targets are picked off first. Bennett explained that writing for him must in “some way illuminate or comment on events in the wider world.” Growing up in West Belfast has led him to recognize communities under attack, Bennett said, like the Muslim communities in Britain currently under attack.

Most interesting was the exposition of Bennett's fascination with characters faced with a dilemma. He explained that a recurrent theme in his work is: What is the right thing to do? His characters are often placed in situations of heightened tension and conflict, where they have to get involved, and they have to pay a price for that. The title of his 2006 novel, the chess term 'Zugzwang', describes a point in the game where any move by the player can only lead to a worsening of his position or to self-destruction.  This metaphor certainly seems to represent the crucial dilemmas of our times: in an age of war on terror, how to move when we are told that the 'rules of the game have changed'? What role can the individual play in changing the course of history ? Is there a point when self-sacrifice becomes necessary? And does there come a point when the decision has been made and it is then a matter of dealing with consequences and effects?

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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