To celebrate the freedom to read, Index on Censorship staff explore some of their favourite, and some of the most important, banned or challenged books.
What are the censors so afraid of?
Monday marked the beginning of Banned Books Week. To celebrate the freedom to read, Index on Censorship staff explore some of their favourite, and some of the most important, banned or challenged books.
Ryan McChrystal – Borstal Boy by Brendan Behan
Brendan Behan’s autobiographical work Borstal Boy was banned in Ireland in December 1958. His London publisher, Hutchinson’s, had sent a batch of copies to Dublin to be sold at a Christmas market but they were confiscated at the port. Behan was outraged that a group of “country yobs” could prevent the distribution of his book.
Borstal Boy is the story of how a 16-year-old Behan landed himself in a series of institutions for young offenders in Kent, having been charged with membership of the IRA, and what happened to him after that.
Although Ireland’s Censorship of Publications Board never explained why the book was banned, it probably had something to do with its depictions of adolescents talking about sex and its pillorying of Irish social attitudes, republicanism and the Catholic Church. The board is, after all, known for its stringent adherence to Roman Catholic values.
When Behan later learned that the book was also banned in Australia and New Zealand, he took solace in song and humour as he went around Dublin singing:
“My name is Brendan Behan, I’m the latest of the banned
Although we’re small in numbers we’re the best banned in the land,
We’re read at wakes and weddin’s and in every parish hall,
And under library counters sure you’ll have no trouble at all.”
David Heinemann – From Dictatorship to Democracy by Gene Sharp
Running the Freedom of Expression Awards’ Fellowship and helping brave people who are often fighting totalitarian regimes can sometimes feel like an uphill battle. How can one person or organisation ever hope to defeat an entire dictatorship?
They can’t, of course, but Gene Sharp’s little book reminds me that “the deliberate, non-violent disintegration of dictatorships” is possible when people work together in certain ways. Part handbook, part political pamphlet, it’s an invaluable toolbox for any serious democratic activist. Its potency was illustrated last year when a group of young Angolans were imprisoned simply for trying to get together and discuss it at a book club.
The fact that I could read it on my commute home reminded me never to take my freedoms for granted.
Vicky Baker – The Bible
The Bible is not an obvious choice for me as I’m an atheist, but loosely picking up on that misattributed Voltaire quote, I would defend anyone’s right to read it – or indeed any other religious book.
Pope Francis has called The Bible “an extremely dangerous book”. Owning it or reading it can get you still get you imprisoned or killed in certain parts of the world. This is the sort of book banning that we should all be extremely worried about, whatever your religion.
These days I don’t even have a copy in my house, but its stories formed part of my childhood. When I grew up I learnt that my hometown, Amersham in Buckinghamshire, also had an important connection to censorship of The Bible. In the 16th century a group of local Lollards were burned at the stake for wanting to translate the book from Latin to English; some of their children were forced to light the pyre.
Known as the Amersham Martyrs, they have since been honoured in a memorial stone, costumed walking tours, and through occasional community plays about their lives, staged in a local church. (Imagine if the bishop who sentenced them saw this today.)
Sadly, we live in a world where censorship of the Bible is not ancient history. In 2014, an American man was sent to labour camp in North Korea for leaving a Bible in a restaurant’s bathroom when visiting as a tourist. It was deemed a crazy act – and, indeed, the move also endangered his local tour guides – but it is outrageous that simply leaving a book behind, so readers can choose to pick it up or not, can still lead to such punishments.
David Sewell – The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
One of those cases in the USA where the pressure to ban comes not from the authorities, but from citizens wanting it pulled from libraries or schools. Complaints were made about its sweary language and its graphic depictions of violence and death. But there again it’s about a grunt’s eye view of the Vietnam war, so go figure.
Only this is really a remarkable work of fiction, which is highly literary in its narrative form. It uses stories to try and construct the extreme experience of war, but also uses war to explore the drive to create stories for ourselves. Language is used to defang terror on the battlefield, stories are invented (and embellished through the re-telling) to keep dead comrades alive, because if they are allowed to die, then it brings death one step closer to the surviving soldiers.
A fascinating book that tries to put words to the unsayable and unspeakable, and its would-be censors are attempting to make it a different kind of unspeakable and unsayable.
Kieran Etoria-King – Riotous Assembly by Tom Sharpe
One of the most enduring, darkly funny things I’ve ever read was the opening chapter of Tom Sharpe’s 1971 novel Riotous Assembly, in which a South African police chief argues with an old white woman who shot her black chef in the garden of her stately home. As two deputies collect up the obliterated corpse of the man she killed with a four-barrelled elephant gun, Miss Hazelstone, who graphically describes her illicit love affair with the chef, demands to be arrested for murder, while a disgusted Kommandant van Heerden insists that the killing of a black person is not murder. Meanwhile, the entire police force of the fictional town of Piemburg, operating under mistaken intelligence, are engaged in a fierce and escalating firefight at the gate, unaware that they are actually shooting at each other from behind cover.
Sharpe had lived in South Africa from 1951 to 1961 before he was deported over a play he staged that criticised the government, so he had an intimate knowledge of the country and Riotous Assembly, a hilarious send-up of the South African police force, is driven as much by real venom and contempt for the Apartheid system as it is by vulgar humour. Of course, that system wasn’t going to tolerate such mockery and the book was banned in South Africa as well as Zimbabwe.
Helen Galliano – The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
I first came across The Master and Margarita – considered to be one of the finest novels to come out of the Soviet Union – as a performance student at Goldsmiths and a lover of magical realism. I immediately fell into Bulgakov’s wild and dangerous world of talking cats, decapitations, magic shows, Satan’s midnight ball and plenty of vodka. I was hooked, reading it multiple times throughout my third year and even created a performance reimagining Margarita’s transformation into a witch.
The forward to the 1997 translation of the novel reads: “Mikhail Bulgakov worked on this luminous book throughout one of the darkest decades of the century. His last revisions were dictated to his wife a few weeks before his death in 1940 at the age of forty-nine. For him, there was never any question of publishing the novel. The mere existence of the manuscript, had it come to the knowledge of Stalin’s police, would almost certainly have led to the permanent disappearance of its author.”
Faced with persecution, Bulgakov burned the first manuscript of The Master and Margarita, only to re-write it later from memory. It was eventually published nearly three decades after his death and since then “manuscripts don’t burn”, a famous line from the book, has come to symbolise the power and determination of human creativity against oppression.
Great literature and great ideas will always survive.