‘All I can do is what I can do’

More from local award-winning writer William T. Vollmann

Lumbering toward the podium set up with a microphone at the back of the bookstore, head jutted forward from his body, the parts of which somehow don’t seem to belong together, dressed in a plaid shirt and blue jeans, few sitting in the packed audience at the Politics & Prose Bookstore on upper Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C., would have known that this was the National Book Award-winning author they had come to see and hear, William T. Vollmann. Vollmann looks so plain, his dress so casual, that one might have easily mistaken him for the store’s janitor, if one noticed him at all.

The people who had come to see him were a diverse sort. Some were state Department and international aid types who had read the author’s works about his travels to dangerous places and among the poorest of the poor. Others were college students doing their senior theses on his novel The Royal Family or one of the many others. There were also those who had read only a single Vollmann article, picked up at random in some obscure journal or magazine, but had discovered the best article they’d ever read on that subject, whether that was the war in Bosnia or the life and times of a Thai prostitute. No two people in the audience, it seemed, had read the same Vollmann work.

He opened his reading with an announcement that it would be brief, so as not to bore anyone, and then he would take questions. And everyone was invited afterward to join him for a drink at a nearby bar if they wished. When Vollmann begins reading, there’s a wooden quality to his speech, as if it’s coming from somewhere within him other than his chest and throat—almost as if, instead, it’s coming from his head. There’s also a slight hesitation and delay between and before each word comes out, as if even the most common utterance first goes through a filter.

But as he reads of his travels to an impoverished oil city in Kazakhstan (no Borat character anywhere in sight), reflecting on the disruptions and differences in life and expectations brought about by the fall of communism and the imposition of a global corporate schema on the economy, one begins to better appreciate these qualities in Vollmann. Whatever their original source, the wooden utterances are indicative of a journalistic distance, a sign that what is being reported can be trusted. The slight hesitation in vocalizing each word is the signal of someone for whom language, and the selection of words, is a task taken seriously.

Above all, what comes through, especially in the interaction with the audience afterward, is the moral earnestness of Vollmann’s life and work—morality as something to be struggled for and achieved rather than something that could be assumed or taken for granted. There are brief moments when Vollmann emerges from his deadpan style and bursts forward with a laugh. In that moment a youthfulness and joyousness comes to Vollmann’s face, an innocence still innocent, ever looking out for the innocence of others and for safety.

On his reasons for writing Europe Central, which won the 2006 National Book Award:

I have a German last name, and I’ve always wondered whether I might have had distant relatives who committed atrocities against Jews, against Russians. I kept thinking about it and wondering what I would have done if I had been born in Germany, let’s say, in about 1920. Then suddenly, the Second World War would have started , and I would be drafted - how much of whatever I did would be my fault? What would I have been like if on the other hand I’d been on the Soviet side. So that book, and I guess a lot of my books, are just an attempt to try to understand the Other. It’s very hard to judge people and to judge ideas, but we have to. But if we’re going to do that, we have to see what it’s like, as much as we can, to be those people and to believe those ideas, and only then can we start deciding what we should do about these things. So that was my aim in writing that book.

On his role as a writer:

I have some sense of what my limitations are. I’m not as analytical a person as I would like to be. When I was writing this book about poor people, I would have loved to have come up with a universal answer to poverty, a list of specific recommendations, things that we could all do, because I genuinely want to help. But all I can do is what I can do. And I know too that people can be talented in some areas and can be deficient in other areas. So all I can do is to describe what I see as carefully as I can, put in my qualifications, and say, ‘This is who I am, and I might have failed here and I might have failed there, and this is what I think is going on.’ But it seems like, to the extent that I stick to narrative and a little bit of analysis, I’m on safe ground.

On the current situation in Afghanistan:

I feel just sick every time I think about what’s going on in Afghanistan now. Basically Afghanistan is the next Iraq. Those people were our friends. When I was over there - even in the Taliban time they still liked us, strangely enough. They were grateful because we had helped them against the Soviets. It is a total illusion to think that we can impose any sort of centralized system on Afghanistan that they will accept. If we can’t catch Mullah Omar and Bin Laden, and it seems like we can’t, then the sooner we declare victory and get out the better off we are.

On his perspective on Iraq today:

I would say the situation is about the same now as it was when we invaded. I think that the war was a criminal mistake and it continues to be a criminal mistake. It’s very very hard to know what we could do now to atone for all the grievous harm that we have caused. The only thing that I could think of doing would be to build a whole bunch of schools and hospitals and understand that they were going to get blown up, that our people staffing them were going to get destroyed, and we would just have to keep doing that over and over and over again. Do we have any suicide doctors to counter the suicide bombers? I don’t think so.

I feel like if we left Afghanistan soon, we can avoid it becoming another Iraq anymore than it already is. But it might be that if we leave Iraq we would just add to the harm that we have caused. I really don’t know, because I haven’t been there since before the war.

On the culpability of Congress for the Iraq war:

I think those people have failed their responsibility to the world and to Americans. I don’t blame them that they failed because they were misled by the administration and they probably thought that the president had information on weapons of mass destruction and an al-Qaida link that was not appropriate to share with them. They wanted to show support and be good Americans and make us safer, and in my opinion they were to some extent just more of the president’s victims….In the case of the administration we can’t just say that they made a mistake, because they did everything possible to lie and intimidate and do whatever they were going to do.

On whether his actually sees Iraq war as criminal:

Yes I do. I would like to see President Bush indicted by The Hague.

A CD of Vollmann’s March 6, 2007 reading and talk at the Politics and Prose Bookstore can be purchased for $7.50 plus a $3.00 mailing fee. To order go to the Politics and Prose Web site, www.politics-prose.com, and click on the “Author Events on Demand” box. Or call 800-722-0790.